Survivors of Vizag gas disaster more vulnerable to Covid-19, say experts

Experts have warned that the styrene gas leak in the Visakhapatnam facility would expose locals to infections that they might pick up both from a stressed health system as well as because of compromised immunity.
The gas leak at LG Polymer unit in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, at a time when the country is partially moving out of the national lockdown, exposes the local population to infections. Besides, experts warn that hasty opening up of hazardous units could comprise safety of workers and local population.

Covid-19 deaths among victims of the gas tragedy in Bhopal— where on December 3, 1984 nearly 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant, killing 8,000 people within 48 hours — have already set the alarm bells ringing among health experts.

They have warned now the styrene gas leak in the Visakhapatnam facility would expose locals to infections that they might pick up both from a stressed health system as well as because of compromised immunity.

The immediate deaths were due to inhaling the noxious gas, but experts said as the lockdown ends and industry resumes activities other closed units will also need to be monitored. “It appears there was a lack of chemical emergency preparedness and the set protocol for it was not followed. Industry should ensure that such things do not happen while opening up units,” Suneel Pandey, director, environment and waste management at Teri, told Business Standard.

Pandey said the initial symptoms of the victims were breathlessness and uneasiness, which could compromise their immunity against infections, including Covid-19. “Any exposure to chemicals or gas that compromises immunity will be dangerous when exposed to Covid-19,” he added.

The Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment said styrene is an organic compound used in the manufacture of polymers, plastic and resins. It is manufactured in petrochemical refineries and according to CSE can be carcinogenic. According to India’s Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989, styrene is classified as a hazardous and toxic chemical. “There are clear rules on hazardous chemical storage under the EPA, 1986.The unit in question is an ISO-certified facility, which means it has a protocol for everything,” said CSE in a note.

Acute exposure in the short term results in mucous membrane and eye irritation and gastrointestinal effects, while long-term exposure impacts the central nervous system (CNS), leading to headaches, fatigue, weakness, depression, CNS dysfunction, hearing loss, and peripheral neuropathy. If the amount of styrene goes beyond 800 ppm, then the person could possibly go into a coma.

“Styrene can stay in the air for weeks. It is highly reactive and can combine with oxygen to form styrene dioxide, which is more lethal. The presence of other pollutants can also affect the reactivity. Operating one reactor at full load suddenly can also lead to such disasters,” said Thava Palanisami, professor at Global Centre for Environmental Remediation & CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, University of Newcastle, Australia.

The duration of the exposure and its relative concentration will determine toxicity. Around 3 tonnes of gas leaked from the storage tank and feeding line of the Visakhapatnam unit. We now need to determine exposure.

According to the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), 17 out of 19 deaths in the Madhya Pradesh capital were of people who were victims of the 1984 gas tragedy. Comorbidities enhance the possibility of contracting the Covid-19, as well as complexities that cause death.

According to CSE, the most important immediate treatment for the victims is to provide oxygen. People in the vicinity also need to be evacuated as long-term exposure can be detrimental to their health. Though the air could remain contaminated for some time, winds from the sea could disperse the gas. 



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