Bayer do Brasil: EXPLOSIVE MIXTURE
At Bayer Brazil conditions are “close to catastrophe. This was the verdict of the Committee of Inquiry after visiting the facility. The Agency has demanded comprehensive improvements in staff and plant safety, to which the managers responsible are turning a deaf ear. By Dietmar App
On May 29th l992, one day before the beginning of Eco l992 in nearby Rio de Janiero, an accident occurred in the BAYER plant in Belford Roxo. A white cloud caused fear and panic in a radius of 5 kilometers round the plant and caused many people in other parts of the city to flee their homes. The press as well as the Agency FEEMA, which is nominally responsible for investigating such accidents, let themselves be palmed off with BAYERs claim that the cloud had been harmless. At first it seemed that BAYER would be let off the hook without any further bother from the state agencies and authorities. But on June 6th, l992, a closer inspection of the BAYER plants took place. This was carried out by officials of the Health Ministry of the State of Rio de Janeiro, scientists of the federally-financed Oswaldo Cruz Foundation and representatives of the Chemical Workers Union of Nova Iquacu, where the BAYER plant is located. Three members of the Regional Parliament were also present at the inspection, including the member of parliament Carlos Minc, who is known throughout Brazil for his activities in defence of the environment. The purpose of the inspection was not just to clarify the causes of the accident on May 29th, but principally to bring about an improvement in the flow of information concerning further hazards for staff and residents of the area resulting from BAYERSs manufacturing operations. The inspection could be carried out only after a certain measure of resistance by the BAYER management had been overcome. The official report of the committee of inquiry has now been made available to us.
The report concludes that BAYERs claim that the cloud was definitely harmless is untenable. According to the report, the escape was hazardous and the consequences of the accident for workers and residents are not yet known. BAYERs claim that human error caused the accident is regarded by the inspectors as a facile half-truth. The inspection uncovered a whole series of faulty operations and deficiencies which led to the accident. The less-then-welcome visitors to the BAYER-zone brought the following facts to light: the accident took place in a section of the plant in which raw materials for paints with the trade name DESMODUR (L and N) are produced. In the reactor where the accident occurred - called 5 R 23 - from which the gas escaped, only DESMODUR is produced. At the
time of the accident DESMODUR L was being produced in this reactor. DESMODUR L is composed of two compounds: toluene diisocyanate (TDI), a highly-poisonous and extremely unstable yellow liquid, together with a mixture of poliolenes (diethylene-glycol and trimethylpropane). DESMODUR is produced by 5 groups working three shifts, each working for 7 days followed by three days off. The production start-up of DESMODUR L in reactor 5 R 23 had in fact been scheduled for the morning of May 29, l992. An operator on the early shift carried out the preliminary work. The drums containing the polyolene mixture were stored under a tarpaulin, under which they had been heated with steam, as the contents would otherwise have become too viscous. In order to avoid mix-ups, feedstock for each reactor is normally stored separately. For those drums however which have to be heated only limited space is available: the area under the tarpaulin and an oven which can take up to four drums. For this reason drums which have to be warmed before use are stored together even if their contents are intended for different reactors. This explains why on the day of the accident a mix-up with such serious consequences occurred. One of the drums taken out from under the tarpaulin by the operators on the early shift contained, instead of the polyolene mixture, the substance DESMOPHEN 4O5lB.
It was not until later that the mix-up was noticed. The operator involved , in the meantime, had started another task. The next shift too was initially occupied with other jobs. When finally at about 5 p.m. an operator began to feed the contents of the drums into reactor 5 R 23, which already contained TDI, time was getting short. The DESMODUR L in fact had already reached a further stage in the process.
The drum containing DESMOPHEN was the last to be used. Even before all the contents had been put into the reactor the sudden increase in pressure and temperature in the reactor set off the alarm for the area concerned.
The planned reaction usually takes place at approx. 1OO° C under normal pressure. This time the gages leapt up to the end of the scale at 200° C and 3 bars. It was not possible to ascertain what temperature and pressure was ultimately reached .Almost at the same moment the safety glass fragmented and the outlet via the saftety vent was blocked by resin formed by the uncontrolled reaction (polymerisation). The fire brigade and plant management were informed at once.
The explosion of the whole section of the plant was probably prevented only by the prescence of mind and prompt action of an operator who loosened the brackets holding down the reactor cover. As soon as the pressure became too high, the cover was forced up , permitting the escape of a large quantity of gas. Bayer engineers claimed that polyurethane (a plastic) had been formed by the reaction, and had then broken down into non-poisonous component parts (the cloud of gas was thus clearly harmless). The report of the commission states unreservedly that the meltdown of polyurethane at over 200° C, in an atmosphere without oxygen, causes the formation of hundreds if not thousands of different gases, a number of them poisonous.
Residents living close to the BAYER plant were interviewed by several members of the commission. Their statements yielded the following picture: On the day of the accident almost all of them noticed a strong unpleasant odor and a dense cloud of smoke which covered the entire area and triggered off panic in the local population.
Many residents , in a state of fear, ran out screaming into the street. Others left their apartments at once and headed for somewhere further away , like the homes of friends and relatives in nearby suburbs. Many people locked themselves in and covered their faces with damp cloths.The gas escape led to cases of coughing, irritation of the eyes and respiratory passages, headaches and attacks of bronchitis. Children were especially affected. BAYER gave no information to residents who rang in to the factory asking for advice. In fact no action was taken to protect or warn the local population. Instead of this BAYER closed a bridge giving access to the plant, causing further anxiety among local residents, not surprising considering that many had relatives and friends working at the plant.
A number of local people stated that following the accident they had noticed a decline in bird numbers, plants had turned yellow and house pets had died for no known cause. The enquiries also yielded the fact that the local population associate the BAYER plant with environmental pollution, skin and respiratory complaints as well as
childrens allergies and bronchitis. The BAYER plant is also blamed for the fact that fruit does not ripen in the area.Finding out the real extent of the effects on peoples health caused by the accident on May 29, l992 is not feasible, owing to the deficiencies in the public health service in Belford Roxo. The commission accuses BAYER of seeking to systematically play down the hazards involved in the accident.The commission accuses the company of having entirely excluded the risk of an explosion. - this, despite the fact that an explosion was probably prevented only by the prompt (but unforeseen) action and prescence of mind of an individual operator. The cloud of gas was classified by company officials as harmless, even though they were in ignorance of the substances it contained. During an inspection four weeks after the accident, a foreman even claimed that the section of the plant involved in the accident had been accident-free for 67 days.
The commissions report sees a direct connection between the playing-down of the Belford Roxo accident and BAYERs practice of not recognizing accidents at work and industrial diseases, which also manifests itself in the companys general approach to problems of work safety in the plant. It accuses Bayer of not drawing the appropriate conclusions and implementing corrective measures in the wake of the accident.The commission regards an increase in staff numbers parallel to expansion of output as essential, as well as improved staff training to include especially the personnel of contractors who make up a large proportion of the companys workers. The commission also goes on to demand that an emergency plan be drawn up, in which the population of the area surrounding the plant and relevant institutions and authorities would participate. BAYER must finance necessary health measures for local residents , essential in view of the hazards associated with the presence of the BAYER production facility.
The commission also carried out an inspection of other sections of the plant. Almost always just at the moment when the members of the commission appeared, the production line had just been halted - in most cases with explanations which were patently false.The report states that workers were clearly intimidated and had only hesitantly provided details of work they were engaged on, even if it was something they were doing right at that moment. Despite such obstacles, numerous further safety hazards and deficiencies were brought to light, and BAYER instructed to undertake corrective action. For the commission the inspection of the plant marked just the beginning of a longer-term monitoring of safety practices at BAYER in Belford Roxo. All involved parties and the responsible authorities are to be brought together so as to achieve an improvement in the current unsatisfactory situation.