NEW DELHI -- A toxic gas leak at an Indian polymer plant owned by South Korea's LG Chem left at least 11 dead and hundreds hospitalized on Thursday, just as the country's resources are strained by the coronavirus pandemic.
The LG Polymers factory is located about 20 km from the port city of Visakhapatnam in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The substance that leaked is called styrene, "which is injurious to human health," Kamal Kishore, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), told reporters.
Nearly 1,000 people living close to the plant were forced to evacuate and are receiving medical attention, Kishore added.
The disaster comes as the country of 1.3 billion remains under the world's largest lockdown, until May 17, to control the spread of COVID-19. India's case total stood at 52,952 on Thursday, including 1,783 deaths.
Local TV footage showed men, women and children semi-conscious or lying unconscious on the ground near the polymer plant in the morning.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he had assessed the leak crisis, which began overnight at about 2:30 a.m. local time.
"Spoke to officials of [the Ministry of Home Affairs] and NDMA regarding the situation in Visakhapatnam, which is being monitored closely," Modi wrote. "I pray for everyone's safety and well-being in Visakhapatnam."
The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) -- one of the first responders to major calamities in the country -- deployed experts within a few hours to help local authorities.
"Initially, the people were affected in terms of throat irritation, skin irritation and some toxic gas smell," said S. N. Pradhan, chief of the force.
The NDRF team helped neutralize the danger inside the factory itself and clear villagers from their homes within a 3 km radius.
"About 200 to 250 families were evacuated and a door-to-door search was done" by the NDRF experts, who were wearing chemical-resistant suits and carrying oxygen cylinders, Pradhan said. About 20 to 25 people are in critical but stable condition while others were given first aid and are doing fine, he explained, stressing the situation is under control.
South Korea's ambassador to India, Shin Bong-kil, released a statement saying he was "shocked and saddened" by the news. "This was a highly unfortunate incident and our deepest condolences go out to those affected by this tragic event. We pray for the speedy recovery of those who have been taken ill."
Prof. Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, said there is no specific antidote or definite medicine to reverse the effects of styrene. Washing eyes and skin with water can help, and patients can be further monitored for breathing difficulty or drowsiness -- since exposure to the gas can affect both the lungs and brain.
Some may have to be put on ventilators, while many would just need oxygen therapy.
"By and large, it tends to be an illness which is not universally fatal [and] in most people there is good recovery," Guleria said. The closer the exposure, the higher the likelihood of severe effects, the professor said.
"The chances of long-term impact [on patients] is less, because this compound exits the body fast after getting metabolized," he said when asked whether this leak could have a similar scope as the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy.
That disaster, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, killed nearly 4,000 people after the release of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide India pesticide plant.