EARTH Thailand

Hazard alert after fatal blaze

The Nation 07 May 2012 | Chumphon Nikhomruk, Pongphon Sarnsamak

Toll of 11 dead, 129 injured after Bangkok Synthetics factory fire in Map Ta Phut; industry minister says air quality in Rayong normal, but health officials suspect toluene leak played role in deaths

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra yesterday ordered a tripartite committee to be set up to gauge the extent of chemical contamination after a plastics plant burst into flames in Rayong on Saturday, killing 11 people and injuring 129.

Operations at Bangkok Synthetics’ facility in the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate have been suspended following the accident, at its synthetic tyre furnace.

Yingluck met with officials from the Interior Ministry, Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand, Public Health Ministry and Pollution Control Department, as well as local authorities to discuss measures to contain the health impact and control toxic leakage from the factory. 

The committee comprising representatives of the Pollution Control Department, Industry Ministry and civic groups would be tasked with determining if the environment was still polluted.

The prime minister asked the panel to improve an early-warning system for chemical accidents at the industrial estate. The panel will report to the premier every three months on the situation. 

Yingluck also told health officials to monitor the health of people living around the blast site and Map Ta Phut estate.

The Public Health Ministry said 11 people were killed and 129 people injured as a result of the fire. Eight were killed at the scene, while three others succumbed later at hospitals due to severe injuries.

Killed were Chaiyo Aksornsri, Hassanai Chansettee, Noppaphon Rungrawee, Manop Kulkhai, Khwanpracha Chartthai, Teerayuth Chantarasing, Watcharakorn Boontaweetrakul, Sompong Prom-kham, Sarayuth Uthaya, Sanom Noichamnong and Ekkasit Boopphakosum.

Of the injured, 27 remain in hospital and three are in intensive care units.

Industry Minister Pongsvas Svasti said yesterday, before accompanying Yingluck on her helicopter ride to Rayong, he had ordered a thorough check of security systems at all facilities in the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, as well as the air quality.

He noted that hydrocarbon in the air remained at normal levels, and no carcinogenic substances had been found, despite the leak of toluene, a feedstock for synthetic tyre production.

Villagers evacuated from 10 communities nearby were able to return to their homes yesterday, he said.

About 102 blast victims suffered minor injuries such as burns. They had already been discharged from hospitals.

Deputy Public Health Minister Dr Surawit Khonsomboon said inhaling a large amount of toluene could be fatal, especially for people with existing problems such as asthma, heart disease and respiratory disorders. “The ministry suspected that the inhaling of a large volume of this chemical substance would be one of the major causes of death,” he added.

The Public Health Ministry has now advised local people to wear facemasks as a precaution against inhaling toxic gases such as toluene. It ordered local health officials to monitor problems such as respiratory disease and mental health conditions. The officials would also check the quality of local water supplies.

Surawit said that apart from toluene, which was known to have leaked from the factory, there could be other contaminants.

According to many sources, the fire started in a toluene tank, which workers were cleaning to prepare for the scheduled factory opening today. It was initially suspected that human error caused the fire, but police were still investigating.

Pongsvas, however, said the explosion occurred while the |factory was not operating. He suggested that the fire might have started from inflammable chemicals left behind in pipes by maintenance officers. 

Verapong Chaiperm, governor of the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand, said damage to the factory was about Bt1.5 billion to Bt1.7 billion. Repairs will likely take six months, he said.

Bangkok Synthetics Plc will pay Bt1 million compensation to relatives of the employees killed. The company will also pay for the treatment of those injured.