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Styrene Release Echoes 1984 Bhopal Disaster

Posted on May 18, 2020 by Lauren Scott and Roger Marks

On May 7, an early morning gas leak from a polymer manufacturing facility in southern India killed 12 people and hospitalized at least 350 more. Thousands in the community woke that morning to itchy eyes and difficulty breathing.

At approximately 3:00 a.m. local time, styrene vaporized in its storage tank while workers were conducting regular maintenance and assessing whether it was safe to resume production after India’s coronavirus lockdown. The substance was then accidentally released and carried into the surrounding area via a chimney.

Styrene is a flammable liquid used to make a variety of industrial products, including polystyrene, fiberglass, rubber, and latex. Exposure to styrene in its gaseous form can cause vomiting, dizziness, eye irritation, and respiratory complications.

Company staff confirmed that facility emergency alarms failed to activate as they should have, costing emergency personnel precious time to contain the gas and protect the public. The alarm system was designed to detect a leakage in liquid form and may not have been able to detect the vaporized styrene.

State officials report about 10,000 people were within the affected area, half of whom had to be evacuated. Many of the fatalities and those in critical condition were found in their beds, unconscious from the fumes. Others passed out on the streets, unable to get away in time.

Since the incident, the company has transported its stock of styrene out of the plant and to another facility in South Korea. It also organized a special 200-person commission to visit those hospitalized and actively support bereaved victims and family members.
 

Remembering the Bhopal Disaster

This incident has drawn comparisons to the Bhopal, India disaster in the December of 1984. In that event, water leaked into a tank of methyl isocyanate, catalyzing an exothermic reaction. This reaction caused a massive release of toxic gas that initially killed over 2,000 people and within weeks caused the death of about 10,000 from gas-related complications.

A similar, but not fatal, release occurred in Institute, West Virginia several months later.

These events led Congress to write and pass the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which requires companies that have chemicals on site to help local and State emergency services prepare for releases of those chemicals that might impact the local population and environment.

Superfund & Right-to-Know Act Online Training

Lion’s Superfund and Right-to-Know Act Regulations online course prepares EHS professionals to identify and meet chemical release reporting requirements under EPCRA and CERCLA. The course covers hazardous chemical inventory reporting, release notification, and emergency planning requirements for facilities subject to EPCRA and CERCLA programs like Tier I, Tier II, and Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) reporting.