Environmentalists have advised that there must be immediate evacuation of everyone from areas in proximity to the factory in Vishakhapatnam where a styrene gas leak took place as the chemical is highly toxic and causes severe health impact both in the short and long terms.
Sunita Narain, director general at the Centre for Science, said styrene can be more dangerous if it reacts with oxygen in the air and converts into Styrene di-oxide.
What Is Styrene Gas?
According to India’s Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989, styrene is classified as a ‘hazardous and toxic chemical’.
It is used in the production of polystyrene plastics and resins. These materials are subsequently used in food packaging, rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes and automobile parts. It is also known as PVC gas (polyvinyl chloride), as it is used in the production of PVC.
Styrene is the 20th most-used chemical in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The chemical can be found in air, water and soil once released into the environment. It is broken down in air in 1-2 days, while it evaporates from soil and shallow water surfaces.
It is broken down by micro-organisms if it reaches soil.
How Does It Affect Us?
As per the US-based Environment Protection Agency (EPA), short-term exposure to the substance can result in respiratory problems, irritation in the eyes, irritation in the mucous membrane, and gastrointestinal issues. And long-term exposure could drastically affect the central nervous system and lead to other related problems like peripheral neuropathy. It could also lead to cancer and depression in some cases. However, EPA notes that there is no sufficiet evidence despite several epidemiology studies indicating there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.
If it goes beyond 800 ppm then the person can go into coma.
Negligence To Environmental Regulations
One of the reasons such things happen in India is due to negligence to environmental regulations.
The CSE, in a statement, said styrene is an organic compound used in the manufacture of polymers or plastic or resins and it is a likely carcinogenic substance.
“It can react with oxygen in the air to mutate into styrene dioxide which is more lethal,” the CSE said.
It further said the duration of the exposure and its relative concentration will determine toxicity.
It seems that the gas leak occurred as the plant management, in its haste to re-start the plant, ignored the protocol of doing maintenance of the plant before resuming operations.