A leak from a styrene tank at an LG Chem polystyrene plant in Visakhapatnam, India, has killed at least 13 people and injured hundreds.
Local reports say between 300 and 400 people have been taken to the hospital with breathing difficulties and a burning sensation in their eyes. Images on social media show people collapsed in the streets. It is not yet known how many of the casualties are LG Chem employees.
The leak happened at about 3 a.m. local time on Thursday, May 7, as the plant was being restarted after having been closed since March 24 in compliance with government measures aimed at controlling COVID-19.
The local government authority, the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corp., evacuated villages and cordoned off a 3 km radius around the LG Chem plant.
Reuters quoted an LG Chem spokesman as saying a night shift maintenance worker discovered styrene leaking from a tank. Local reports state that the plant has two 5,000-metric-ton (t) tanks for storing styrene.
LG Chem told local media outlets that the leak has been brought under control. “We are currently assessing the extent of the damage on residents in the town and are taking all necessary measures to protect residents and employees in collaboration with related organizations,” the firm was quoted as saying in a statement.
Styrene is a colorless liquid that evaporates easily. If polymerization of styrene takes place inside a closed container, the container may rupture violently, according to information published by the US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.
The Visakhapatnam site has a capacity to produce 80,000 t per year of polystyrene from styrene. LG Chem acquired the site from Hindustan Polymers in 1997 and renamed it LG Polymers.
Mekapati Goutham Reddy, the minister for industry in Andhra Pradesh—the state where the LG plant is located—told the local TV channel BBC Telugu that it appears proper procedures and guidelines were not followed when the plant was being reopened.
India’s worst industrial incident—the 1984 Bhopal disaster, in which thousands died from exposure to methyl isocyanate—also involved exposure to a toxic chemical released during the night.
“India’s chemical-industry oversight remains lax, despite the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster at a U.S.-owned plant,” Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, wrote on social media. “The chemical industry’s standards are such that it cannot self-police.”