Plastic’s toxic trail: ‘Indispensable’ polymer’s health impacts all-pervasive; petrochemical workers are especially vulnerable

Down To Earth visited Panipat's petrochemical cluster to find how the area is in throes of a health crisis
The Panipat industrial cluster visited by Down To Earth. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE
The Panipat industrial cluster visited by Down To Earth. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

Rafeeq (name changed on request) works at the Naptha cracker terminal of the petrochemical industrial cluster in Haryana’s Panipat district. He has been working for the past 12 years, with an average of 8 working hours spent in the manufacturing plant. The last couple of years have been particularly difficult for the family. Rafeeq has been suffering from an acute respiratory infection. Being the only bread earner in the family, he has had to take several days of absence from work, leading to loss of pay. Rafeeq’s physician told Down To Earth (DTE) that he may not be able to continue working at the plant.

Rafeeq is not the only one suffering. There are many more like him who have are facing issues ranging from loss of hearing and sight, clinical depression, skin diseases and other issues. They believe their work place — the petrochemical refinery — is to be blamed for their health condition.

“If you are here to set up a health camp, labourers from the plant will flock to get themselves tested,” said one of the workers who met the DTE research team right outside the Naptha cracking unit of the Indian Oil Corporation Ltd’s refinery in Panipat. The workers of the refinery and residents nearby are cognizant of the health impact. One of them casually mentioned, “I won’t be the only one to die if there are harmful chemicals in the air. The refinery is spread over an area of 4,200 acres of land and is in close vicinity to seven villages.”

A 2022 study published in the National Library of Medicine states: “The petrochemical industry utilises many chemical substances, whose exposure, without effective control and mitigation actions, could influence the health status over time.”

The health impacts of the petrochemical industry are not limited to the people working within the plant but also extends to the population residing in the vicinity. A 2020 study published in the journal Science Direct presents a literature review of 23 scientific investigations highlighted “Living near petrochemical industries is also associated with a higher incidence of cancer”.

Petrochemical industries mainly involve refining and cracking of crude oil to produce a range of products. Until recent decades, the largest petrochemical industries were located in the United States and Western Europe. However, in recent years West and South Asian countries have exhibited a growth in the production capacities of petrochemicals.

The petrochemical industry is concerned with production and trade of petrochemicals like detergents, pesticides, synthetic textiles, with a major part being constituted by the Plastics industry. In India, 67 per cent of the total petrochemical refining capacity is dedicated to the production of plastics.

The first step to produce plastics is laden with chemicals and emissions that are known to be hazardous to human health. But the further process of making plastics is not any safer. There is increasing body of research work that states plastic pollute and impact human health across their life cycle. A 2023 research led by the Boston College Global observatory on Planetary Health found that plastics are responsible for wide-ranging health impacts including cancers, lung disease and birth defects, according to the first analysis of the health hazards of plastics across their entire life cycle – from extraction for manufacturing, through to dumping into landfills and oceans.

The primary plastic pellets manufactured at petrochemical plants travel huge distances to be converted to plastic products. This is where the pellets undergo the first thermal cycle when they are melted and moulded into different products.

On May 7, 2020, a gas leak at the styrene-producing plant operated by LG Polymers ended up killing 12 people and more than 300 were hospitalised for treatment. More than three years later, the plant has been shifted from Visakhapatnam to Sri City, both in Andhra Pradesh. There is not enough data on the measures taken by the manufacturing plant to ensure such incidences would be avoided in the future.

A 2011 research that focused on the pulmonary function of workers in styrene manufacturing facilities in India found a significant reduction in lung volumes and capacities as compared to a control group. It showed that styrene inhalation by workers leads to increased levels of oxidative stress, which is supposed to be the cause of lung damage. 

Another research published in Springer Link a decade ago in 2014, studied the health of workers in the plastic industry in Kolkata. It found that chronic exposure to lead leads to adverse health impacts. The observations of the study point towards the acute health risk faced by plastic industry workers, in whom chronic exposure to lead increases the absorption and accumulation, over a period of time, of this highly toxic element in their body. This increases oxidative stress, causes metabolic damage to red blood cells and cell membranes, and also suggests necrosis of liver cell, hepatocellular injury and presence of space occupying lesions.

It is strongly believed and propagated by the industry and governments alike that plastic is a waste management issue. Growing research shows that it is a unsustainable production problem that exacerbates climate change. Plastic production is strongly linked to deteriorating human health like decreased endocrine function. 

This is the first in a 5-part series. Read the second, thirdfourth and fifth parts.

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