Styrene is primarily a synthetic chemical. It is also known as vinylbenzene, ethenylbenzene, cinnamene, or phenylethylene. It’s a colorless liquid that evaporates easily and has a sweet smell. It often contains other chemicals that give it a sharp, unpleasant smell. It dissolves in some liquids but doesn’t dissolve easily in water. Billions of pounds are produced each year to make products such as rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes, automobile parts, food containers, and carpet backing. Most of these products contain styrene linked together in a long chain (polystyrene) as well as unlinked styrene. Low levels of styrene also occur naturally in a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beverages, and meats.
Styrene products and utilisation:
- Styrene is an organic compound with the formula C8H8, which is a derivative of benzene (C6H6).
- It is stored in factories as a liquid, but evaporates easily and hence has to be kept at temperatures under 20°C.
- It is the main raw material for synthesis of polystyrene, which is a versatile plastic that is used to make parts of various appliances such as refrigerators or micro-ovens, automotive parts and parts of computers and also to manufacture disposable cups and in food packaging.
- Styrene is also used as an intermediate to produce copolymers (polymers derived from one or more species of monomers such as styrene) and engineering plastics compounds.
Consequences of styrene inhalation:
- It causes breathlessness, respiratory problems, irritation in eyes, indigestion, nausea, transient loss of consciousness and giddiness.
- It is the mucous membrane that is mainly affected by exposure to styrene gas.
- Exposure to styrene gas affects the central nervous system.
- Long-term effects include developing leukaemia and headaches.
Recent case of leakage:
- The gas leaked, Styrene is also known as Vinylbenzene or Cinnamene or Ethenylbenzene or Phenylethylene, which is a synthetic hazardous and toxic chemical.
- The source of the gas leak was a styrene plant owned by South Korean LG Chem Polymers located near Gopalapatnam, 15 km from Visakhapatnam.
- The factory was established in 1961, originally as Hindustan Polymers, to manufacture polystyrene.
- It was merged with McDowell & Co of the UB Group in 1978, then taken over in 1997 by South Korea-based LG Chem, which renamed it LG Polymers.
- The gas leaked from this tank when officials were preparing to reopen the factory that was shut for 44 days due to the lockdown.
- According to official sources, 1,800 tonnes of styrene was stored in a tank of capacity 2,400 tonnes.
- About half the gas leaked before it was contained.
- As the styrene was stagnant for 44 days some gas might have accumulated at the ceiling of the storage tank and its temperature rose beyond the specified 20°C and the gas started vaporising and escaped.
- This phenomenon is called auto-polymerisation.