Styrene Gas Leak in Visakhapatnam: The Toxic Chemical Disaster (the Concepts)

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: September 13th, 2023

This article is relevant for UPSC CSE, UPSC EPFO and other State PSC Exams.

The styrene gas leak is a sad reminder of how our industries do not regulate themselves properly – be it their processes, facilities, overall functioning etc. None of that is taken care of in the infamous Vishakhapatnam styrene gas leak.

Styrene Gas Leak in Visakhapatnam: the Toxic Chemical Disaster

In the case of LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd., styrene gas is used as one of the basic blocks in this industry that got leaked in Vishakhapatnam city. The nearby areas of the LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd. are all residential, so it affected all the people in that area, more than a thousand plus have been affected. It was very unfortunate around 11 people to have lost their lives in this incidence, as per the immediate reports. The count could be more on the present-day basis.

Styrene Gas Leak Causes

The faulty onsite storage was the prime cause of the styrene gas leak as it was not stored at a certain temperature at which it was supposed to be stored. This resulted in an increase in the pressure in the storage container and its subsequent leakage and dispersal to the nearby areas.

What had happened in Styrene Gas leak case in India?

  • The disastrous leak of a toxic chemical, styrene killed several people and left hundreds sick near Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Residents of habitations around Gopalapatnam which is close to LG Polymers plant passed out as the hazardous styrene vapour swept through the area at night.
  • Several deaths took place as people tried to flee but the chemical rendered them unconscious. There are horrified stories of people falling from buildings or into walls and ditches as they lost consciousness.
  • They have become the first victims of the exit from the lockdown as industrial units could resume their operations.

Why Styrene is so dangerous?

  • The chemical formula is C8H8. It is a synthetic chemical derivative of benzene.
  • It is liquid and flammable in nature. It is found in vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke and in natural foods like fruits and vegetables.


How does it impact human beings?

As per the International Agency for Research for Cancer, an affiliated body of the World Health Organization has classified styrene as a hazardous and toxic chemical and a possible carcinogen.

It is regarded as a potent carcinogen and a dangerous gas. To human beings, it is responsible to cause:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Irritation in the eyes
  • Irritation in the mucus membrane
  • gastrointestinal issues

For safe storage, styrene must be kept under the 17 degree Celsius. The usage of the styrene gas is in the manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, fiberglass, rubber and latex. In India, the styrene gas is considered as the hazardous and toxic chemical according to the Manufcature, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989. India has a very sound regulatory system in place in terms of Acts, Laws, Regulations, Rules, and are well taken care of. India has an umbrella Act of environmental protection, Environmental Protection rules, Manufacture Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rule 1989, Hazardous Waste Handling and Transboundary movement rules 1989, Factories Act 1948, Public Liability Insurance Act and so on.

What are the provisions of Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical (Amendment) Rules, 1989?

In the year 1989, the Ministry of Environment and Forest had enacted the norms under the Manufacture, Storage, and Import of Hazardous Chemical (Amendment) Rules. The ministry has been renamed as the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change.  The norms were later amended in 1994 and 2000. The rules are meant to regulate the manufacture, storage and import of hazardous chemicals in India. The hazardous chemicals have been grouped under three schedules- Schedule I, Schedule II and Schedule III. The regulatory requirements are different for each schedule.

Provisions of the Act

  • The Act says that occupier generating hazardous wastes shall take all practical steps to ensure proper handling and disposal of hazardous wastes. And it should be done in an environment-friendly manner.
  • The authorization permission should be granted by the State Pollution Control Board and that the operator of a facility or occupier, possesses appropriate facility, technical capabilities, and equipment to handle hazardous wastes.
  • The hazardous chemicals must be allowed to import only for processing and re-use as raw material.
  • Only after the proper examination of the matters concerning various environmental implications, the central govt should grant permission or may refuse permission to import such hazardous wastes.
  • A complete product safety information must be furnished by the importers to the competent authority and must transport imported chemicals in accordance with the amended rules.

Note: Basel Convention is an international treaty on trans-boundary movement of hazardous wastes.  It was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries (LDCs). 

Under the Manufacture Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rule 1989, it is classified as hazardous and toxic. It is a flammable gas, with both short term and long-term impacts.  Depending on the level of exposure in the Vishakhapatnam of styrene gas leak disaster, people have suffered varied degree of impacts and symptoms, some have lost their lives.

Key takeaways from the toxic Disaster:

The styrene gas leak tragedy is a reminder that safety is paramount when exiting the lockdown. Now the govt has also ordered that all these processing industries such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, petroleum industries etc., need to be very careful while restarting their operations and all proper safeguards should be taken by the industries.

Who is responsible?

Authorities and the State government was aware about the hazardous nature of the chemical and it was characterized under the poor stability under a variety of conditions that could lead to explosive situations.

  • The project holder and during the lockdown, they were still given the permission to maintain the facility even when their manufacturing process was not working. The gas had to be stored at 17 degree Celsius. As it evaporates easily at the higher temperatures.
  • There were site engineers and technicians and personnel who were taking care of their process, right when they were about to restart the facility this thing happened. That means for this whole time they did not maintain it and there was some fault probably or they were careless when they were restarting it and they did not check the systems properly and they just decided to restart it.
  • It completely and to a very great degree points out to the lapse in judgement.

Despite a sound legal system in place, the incidence took place claiming many lives, the authorities should definitely be held accountable for this. Proper enquiry and accountability needs to be fixed. Also, it is important to know and enquired thoroughly that ‘was the reopening work’ was left to unskilled people, as some city officials doubted as under the lockdown many of the skilled labours left for their hometowns. All these plants were shut and they were operating with less manpower.  

M.C. Mehta Vs Union of India 1986, the Supreme Court had come up with absolute liability which old that in case of Industrial disaster no proof of complicity is required companies that are responsible for such an act have to compensate everybody who suffers harm on account of such Industrial accidents.  

1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster

The Bhopal Gas tragedy remains the world’s worst industrial disaster and the recent incident in Vishakhapatnam has brought back the memories of the same. This incident was the result of leakage of poisonous gas – Methyl isocyanate from three storage tanks of Union carbide factory. Methyl isocyanate is used in the manufacture of pesticides.

  • The year 2019 marked the 35th anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy that took the life of thousands of people at midnight on 2nd December 1984 in Bhopal.
  • In this nearly 46 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas was released into the atmosphere, affecting lungs, brain, eyes, muscles as well as gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive and immune systems of people.
  • As per the official data, the incident claimed the lives of 2259 people immediately after the incident.

Though the styrene gas leak incident of Vishakhapatnam is much smaller in scale and styrene is not as poisonous as methyl isocyanate but it reflects that even after 35 years India has not moved much on the Industrial safety and people still remain susceptible to the disasters.

Way forward

In the recent past, three industrial accidents have taken place- one in Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and major one in Andhra Pradesh. In all these incidents, the factories and the major establishments were trying to reopen after the lockdown. Any mistake on the part of industry managements can have disastrous consequences as seen in this incident. As India aims for a wider manufacturing base it needs to strengthen its approach to public and occupational safety.

Transparent oversight is not a hurdle to the industrial growth, rather it advances sustainable development by eliminating terrible mistake which can have catastrophic impacts. There should be regular check that all the regulations are complied with. It needs no special emphasis that the safety of industrial chemicals requires continuous watch with no scope for waivers.

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