This article originally appeared on VICE India.
TRIGGER WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES
Early this morning, Indians woke up to the terrifying news of a chemical gas leak in Visakhapatnam in the state of Andhra Pradesh, that is killing people—at least eight at the time of writing this article—and hospitalising several thousands as you read this. The commissioner of the Visakhapatnam city corporation confirmed that the leaked gas is styrene from the LG Polymers plant, owned by South Korean battery maker LG Chemical Ltd, which makes polystyrene products. Among the products the plant manufactures is electric fan blades, cups, cutlery and containers for cosmetic products such as make-up.
Styrene is known to be highly flammable and when burnt, it releases poisonous gas, which can cause nausea and dizziness when inhaled. The National Disaster Response Force director general SN Pradhan said that the styrene gas affects the central nervous system, throat, skin, eyes and other parts of the body, and requires immediate medical attention.
In this case, the leak was from two 5,000 tonne tanks, which, local cops say, had been left unattended due to the coronavirus lockdown in India since March, but that the company was preparing to resume operations after the lockdown was eased on May 3. Reports say that the leak occurred between 2.30 a.m. and 3 a.m. and spread over a radius of three kilometres, affecting at least five villages. "(The gas) was left there because of the lockdown. It led to a chemical reaction and heat was produced inside the tanks, and the gas leaked because of that,” said Swarupa Rani, the assistant commissioner of police in Visakhapatnam.
As rescue operations continue to evacuate the locals, the death toll is increasing. In the meantime, the images from the ground have shocked the country, and local leaders have demanded a probe into the leak and asked for the plant to be shut down.
Those on the ground have been posting haunting images on social media, showing people as well as livestock such as cows lying unconscious on the roads.
Telugu Desam Party chief N Chandrababu Naidu also observed that the gas leak has come at a time when the lungs and immunity of the people are already impacted by the coronavirus. “COVID-19 infects the lungs and reduces the immunity of the person,” he said. “Hence, it is essential that medical aid should be two-pronged keeping in mind Styrene Gas and COVID-19.”
The incident has also reminded the Indians of a similar horrifying incident in Bhopal in 1984, in which a gas leak from US chemical firm Union Carbide killed thousands and continues to have major physiological and psychological impact on generations of people who were exposed to it and survived it. It is still considered the world’s worst industrial disaster, which affected at least 100,000 people who now have chronic illnesses such as respiratory and kidney problems, along with hormonal imbalances, mental illness and several forms of cancer. In fact, most who have died after testing positive for coronavirus in the city of Bhopal were those who were also survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
In the meantime, LG Polymers has come out with the statement saying they’re looking into the leak. “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,” their statement says, adding that they will ensure casualties receive treatments quickly.
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