Until the industrial accident in Visakhapatnam at the LG Polymer plant, styrene was an unfamiliar name to the general public. Surprising, one must say, because of how important it is in the chemical industry, and how many materials we use in our everyday owe their existence to styrene.
Humans are exposed to the chemical at their workplaces; it enters the body by the respiratory route or through the skin. Styrene is metabolized and the metabolites are excreted principally through the urine.
Most health effects of styrene exposure were published in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
At the workplace bad effects of styrene depend on the concentration and duration of exposure. At high concentrations, affected persons suffer from irritation in the nose and eye; at longer exposures, they feel unsteady and complain of drowsiness. Later on they complain of being ‘tense’, are asthenic and have lassitude. Other respiratory problems are wheezing and a tightness of the chest; it is worse among cigarette smokers. Neurological symptoms include feeling “lightheaded” or “drunk”.
Treatment in the immediate phase consists in removing the person from the scene of exposure to a well ventilated area with fresh air. The chemical from the skin and eyes is immediately washed off by continuous flushing with plain water for 15 minutes at least.; if available normal saline may be used to flush the eyes
In case the chemical is ingested, one must take care not to let it enter the lungs because it is soluble in fats, and can enter the lungs leading to severe inflammation. Also, avoid giving foods containing fats because the absorption of styrene may be enhanced. Other first aid measures provided are common to any other accident: keeping the respiratory airway open, administering oxygen if necessary, ensuring the person is breathing and maintain blood circulation by the heart.
The long-term adverse effects were more worrisome, especially the risk of developing cancer. Most chemicals are carcinogenic, ie have the ability to produce cancer in the long run. In the case of styrene, it was all the more ominous, because it was shown to produce cancer of the lung in rodents such as the mouse. Experimental and clinical evidence showed that reassuringly, humans have a different metabolic pathway, and they are not at increased risk of developing lung cancer.
There are no specific ‘antidotes’ for treatment of styrene toxicity. Prevention continues to be the best form of treatment.
(The writer is a renowned Endocrine and Diabetes specialist. Views expressed are personal firstname.lastname@example.org)