Handling toxic chemical need safety controls

Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) views with concern the incident in Shah Alam where 31 students of a school there fell ill and had breathing difficulties – apparently following the release of a toxic chemical known as ethyl mercaptan.

Exposure to ethyl mercaptan can cause headaches, weakness, fatigue, nausea, lack of coordination and irritation of the mucous membranes. Children are naturally more vulnerable.

Petronas Gas Shah Alam area manager, Mohd Isa Adam, was quoted in the press stating that there was no gas leak but that this chemical used to odourise natural gas, was released during a routine service check at the station.

The police and Fire & Rescue Department staff had to cordon off the road leading to the station during the cleaning-up operations, while workers from Kualiti Alam sealed several drums believed to contain the chemical.

Firstly, is a gas station supposed to be so close to a school to the extent that children can be adversely affected by its chemical operations? Secondly, were safety measures followed, and if so, why did this “accident” happen – requiring young children to be sent to hospital and a road to be cordoned off for clean-up, and for drums to be sealed?

According to the Guidelines of the US National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health and the Centers for Disease Control, during ethyl mercaptan operations as a fuel gas odourant, the recommended safety controls include “process enclosure” and “general dilution ventilation”.

Workers handling this chemical also have to be protected with a prior thorough baseline health status evaluation and regular medical surveillance for any anticipated occupational risks.

CAP calls on management of PETRONAS, the Department of Environment (DOE) authorities and also Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) authorities to throw more light on the circumstances surrounding this mishap and the measures taken nationwide to prevent any repeat occurrences.