Vizag gas leak: Styrene used in making household plastics and condoms — too much of it can cause cancer or coma

Vizag gas leak: Styrene used in making household plastics and condoms — too much of it can cause cancer or coma
Children affected by the gas leakage at the LG Polymers unit located at RR Venkatapuram near Gopalapatnam in Visakhapatnam being rushed for treatment to a Visakhapatnam hospital on May 7, 2020IANS

  • Styrene gas leak in Visakhapatnam has claimed 11 lives so far.
  • The gas is used to make polystyrene plastics, fibreglass, rubber and latex — common items found around any household.
  • Symptoms of excess exposure include nausea, itchy eyes and skin rashes in the short run but can also cause cancer or an irregular heartbeat if exposed to for too long.
Styrene gas has killed 11 people and put hundreds in the hospital. However, officials maintain that the gas, in itself, isn’t poisonous leaving many to wonder it has managed to rake up a toll in just a few hours.

Reports indicate that eight of the victims passed away due to prolonged exposure to the gas while the other two died while trying to get away from the leak.

The mention of a gas leak in India strikes panic in the heart of many a citizen as the Bhopal gas tragedy comes to mind. However, there’s a stark difference between what happened then and what’s happening now — mostly because the gas in question is different.

Styrene is the same stuff used to make condoms and plastic boxes
Styrene is a flammable liquid and a byproduct of benzene. The synthetic chemical goes many names like vinylbenzene or ethenylbenzene. Even though styrene may come up in regular conversation, its presence isn’t all that rare.

Most often it’s used to manufacture polystyrene plastics, according to Tox Town — a US-based website run by the US National Library of Medicine. These plastics make up the packaging for almost any grocery product that you buy at a store or the air-lock boxes you use to store your snacks. Even the styrofoam wrapped around your brand-new television sets and mobiles phones is made using the same gas.

It’s also used to manufacture fibreglass, rubber and latex — the same stuff that goes into producing condoms.

If it’s not getting processed, it’s being thrown up in vehicle exhaust or cigarette smoke. It can even be found in some natural foods, including fruits and vegetables.

The issue with the gas leak is that large quantities have been leaking out since 2:30 am on May 7 and no one really knows how bad it is. The silver lining, according to the Director-General of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), is that the continuous water spray since the gas leak was detected that reduced the inflammability of the chemical.

What are the symptoms of styrene exposure?
In the short run, exposure to styrene can result in irritation to the eyes, skin and nose. Some people may also exhibit gastrointestinal effects like vomiting and respiratory ramifications like difficulty breathing.

LG Chemicals, the parent company of LG Polymers, which owns the chemical plant accused of causing the gas leak has said in certain cases patients may also exhibit nausea in the short run.

“Styrene can cause harm to humans by ingestion and inhalation as well as irritation in the throat, breathing difficulty, wheezing, respiratory distress. It can also affect the brain leading to headache, nausea, unsteadiness, and problems in walking. High exposure can lead to coma and irregular heartbeat,” said Doctor Randeep Guleria, the Director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

Tox Town’s analysis shows that long-term exposure can result in adverse effects to the central nervous system and kidneys, in addition to hearing loss and in some cases, cancer.

How bad is the situation in Visakhapatnam?
Even though many are recalling the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, there isn’t enough known about the Vizag gas leak to draw a comparison. Visakhapatnam Police Commissioner Rajiv Kumar Meena maintains that the gas is “non-poisonous” and only fatal if you have been exposed to it for longer durations.

However, ten people have already been reported dead as a result, with over 300 admitted in hospitals reporting severe symptoms.

The gas leak was only detected at around 03:00 am but may have been seeping through for a while considering the severity of the symptoms exhibited by people living in the neighbourhood.

As of now, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) estimates that over 1,000 people have been affected by the gas leak in Vizag.

See also:
All you need to know about LG Polymers – the company behind the deadly gas leak in Visakhapatnam

As the Vizag gas leak crisis unravels, one can’t help but remember the Bhopal Gas Tragedy which left thousands dead

FIR registered against LG Chemicals as Vizag gas leak death toll rises to 10 with 300 in the hospital and at least a thousand affected in its wake