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The Chlorine Gas Leak at Jamshedpur

Dr. Monalisa Joshi is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 31, 2008

    On the afternoon of May 27, the people of Jamshedpur were caught unaware. They were exposed to a dense, pale green, pungent and poisonous gas, Chlorine. This gas had leaked from an unused cylinder lying in the Tata Motor’s water treatment plant for the past 10 years. By the next day, around 150 to 200 people had been hospitalised. The affected people also included company employees and their family members. So far no deaths have been reported. Later, in a statement, Tata Motors claimed that the chlorine leak has been plugged and about 60 to 70 residents who reported breathing difficulty were admitted to the Tata Motors hospital in Jamshedpur. The Chief Minister of Jharkahnd, Madhu Koda, alleged that negligence by Tata Motors had led to the leakage of chlorine gas.

    Chlorine gas is regarded as a pulmonary chemical agent, primarily due to its impact on the human respiratory system. This gas has strong oxidising properties and thus finds its use in water purification plants. Its toxicity irritates the respiratory system. The initial symptom of chlorine exposure is suffocation. Severe exposure to the gas may cause pulmonary edema within 30 to 60 minutes. There is no available prophylactic or postexposure therapy for chlorine. Treatment is directed towards physiological signs and symptoms. Respiratory failure is the prime reason for death due to chlorine exposure. There are no long term complications for people who survive an acute exposure. However, long-term effects of chlorine exposure would be more pronounced if an individual suffers from bacterial infection or other medical complications.

    The leak at the Jamshedpur plant brought back haunting memories of the tragic Bhopal Gas leak in 1984. The leakage of methyl isocyanate at Bhopal created the largest chemical industrial accident ever. It is reported that around 2,000 people died during the first weeks. More than 100,000 persons received permanent injuries. Following this, many new laws and acts were enacted as a safeguard measure. These are:

    • The Factories Act, 1948, as amended in 1976 and 1987
    • The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
    • The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, amended in 1992
    • The Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989
    • The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989

    Under the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, it is the responsibility of the company concerned to prevent major accidents and also to limit their consequences to persons and the environment. In addition, the company is accountable for providing information, training and equipment including antidotes necessary to ensure safety of persons working at the site. Several new rules were later incorporated under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Important among them is The Chemical Accidents (Emergency Planning, Preparedness and Response) Rules, 1996. This rule defines a chemical accident as “an accident involving a fortuitous, or sudden or unintended occurrence while handling any hazardous chemicals resulting in continuous, intermittent or repeated exposure to death, or injury to, any person or damage to any property but does not include an accident by reason only of war or radio-activity.” Under this rule, chlorine is listed as a Hazardous and Toxic Chemical. Further, this rule authorises the Central Government to constitute a Central Crisis Group for management of chemical accidents and set up a Crisis Alert System. Importantly, the Central Government shall set up an information network system with the State and district control rooms, publish a list of Major Accident Hazard installations, publish a list of major chemical accidents in chronological order and take measures to create awareness amongst the public with a view to preventing chemical accidents. The Central Crisis Group, an apex body, shall deal with major chemical accidents and provide expert guidance for handling major chemical accidents. The Central Crisis Group would co-ordinate its functions and duties with State Crisis Groups and the District Crisis Groups.

    It is clear that the legal framework to prevent and manage industrial disasters in India is in place. More steps need to be taken to enforce these legal instruments and ensure stringent safe practices to prevent industrial hazards. In addition, the spectrum of public health in India needs to be broadened. Past incidents of industrial disasters in India point out the need to have effective, fully equipped and trained medical personnel to provide immediate relief. The key is to be prepared in advance. Any such effort would require the co-ordination between government agencies as well as most importantly industry participation and civil society groups. Perhaps what has been elusive so far is the issue of industrial co-operation. While technological growth and industrial development has the potential to provide answers to the problems of food, health and general welfare for India, it should be achieved with an equal emphasis on human security and welfare.

    References

    1. Ingrid Eckerman, “Chemical Industry and Public Health Bhopal as an Example” Available at http://www.eckerman.nu/default.cfm?page=The%20Bhopal%20Saga, pp. 1-60.
    2. John S. Urbanetti, “Toxic Inhalational Injury”, Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare, Available at www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/1997/cwbw/, pp. 255-257.

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