LG Polymer Gas Leak – An inquiry into the application of Domestic & International Legal Obligation revolving Chemical Accidents
LG POLYMER GAS LEAK – AN INQUIRY INTO THE APPLICATION OF DOMESTIC & INTERNATIONAL LEGAL OBLIGATIONS REVOLVING CHEMICAL ACCIDENTS
Prof. (Dr.) Sairam Bhat, Professor of Law & Coordinator of CEERA
Ms. Madhubanti Sadhya, Mr. Rohith Kamath and Ms. Geethanjali KV., Teaching Associates, CEERA,
In the wee hours of the morning of 7th May, 2020 leakage of toxic styrene gas from the plant of LG Polymers India Private Limited at R.R. Venkatapuram in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh left hundreds of locals hospitalised and claimed several lives. The leakage occurred in the midst of the nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of the global corona virus pandemic when the plant was re-starting operations after lockdown restrictions were eased. Styrene monomer, an organic compound is a basic building block of the plastics industry. A preliminary finding of the Andhra Pradesh Factories Department reflected that the chemical which is normally in the liquid state and is safe below a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius converted into vapors due to the malfunctioning of the refrigeration unit attached to the styrene tanks at the plant, causing pipes to burst resulting in the consequent leakage from the plant.
Styrene, a synthetic chemical, also known as vinyl benzene, ethenybenzene, cinnamene, or phenyl ethylene ranges between colour less to dark coloured flammable liquid with a sweet smell that evaporates easily into a flammable vapour that is heavier than air. The chemical can be polymerized and if polymerization takes place inside a closed container, the container may rupture violently. The chemical is used in large quantities worldwide to produce rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes, automobile parts, food containers, and carpet backing. In so far as the effect of styrene on humans and the environment is concerned, it is a fairly toxic chemical and effects can be felt after short term (acute) or long term (chronic) exposure. While styrene may enter the human body through inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, skin and/or eye contact its primary route of entry is through the respiratory tract. The health effects of the chemical include irritation of the skin, eyes, and the upper respiratory tract. Short term exposure may result in redness of the eye and skin, gastrointestinal effects, nausea, vomiting and long term exposure may result in skin blistering and development of dermatitis, affect the central nervous system showing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, lassitude (weakness, exhaustion), dizziness, confusion, malaise (vague feeling of discomfort), drowsiness, unsteady gait and may cause minor effects on kidney function and possible liver injury. The hazard statement of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals classifies styrene as a chemical that is suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child and is also suspected of causing cancer. Female workers with long term exposure to the chemical have reported decreased frequency of births and increased frequency of spontaneous abortions.Some epidemiologic studies on workers exposed to found increased mortality or incidences leukemia or lymphoma along with suggestive evidence for pancreatic and esophageal tumors. In 2018, an impartial working group appointed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and working with the support of WHO upgraded styrene from possibly carcinogenic to probably carcinogenic for humans on the basis of register-based studies. The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals and the International Chemical Safety Cards, a joint initiative of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), with the cooperation of the European Commission that provides safety and health information on chemicals, reports the chemical to be toxic to aquatic organisms and strongly advices against the entry of the chemical into the environment, especially the disposal of the chemical into drains, surface and ground waste. Therefore, it is fairly certain that the chemical adversely affects both human and animal life. Styrene also features in the list of hazardous and toxic chemicals under the Manufacture Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989 and under the Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996.
The styrene gas leak at LG Polymers and its lethal impact on the local populace around the plant has forced the country to draw similarities with the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster that rattled the nation in 1984 and question the efficacy and implementation of the laws in place that should either avert or minimize the repercussions of such chemical accidents. A five member expert committee comprising of Special Chief Secretary, Environment and Forest, Special Chief Secretary Industries, Commissioner of Police- Visakhapatnam, Member-Secretary, AP State Pollution Control Board and the District Collector has been constituted by the Chief Minister to inquire into the incident and verify whether all safety protocols had been adhered to by the company and to recommend actions to be taken if the company is found to be negligent. The company as it stands today was established in 1961 as “Hindustan Polymers” for manufacturing polystyrene and its co-polymers. In 1978, the company merged with Mc Dowell and Company Ltd. of United Breweries Group and in 1997, the company was taken over by South Korean petrochemicals giant LG Chem Ltd. and rechristened LG Polymers India Private Limited. The company presently engages in the production of general purpose polystyrene, high impact polystyrene, coloured polystyrene, expandable polystyrene and engineering plastic compounds, for all of which styrene is used as a raw material..
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