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What happened in Bhopal?


On the night of Dec. 2nd and 3rd, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, began leaking 27 tons of the deadly gas methyl isocyanate. None of the six safety systems designed to contain such a leak were operational, allowing the gas to spread throughout thecity of Bhopal.[1] Half a million people were exposed to the gas and 20,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site.

These ailments include blindness, extreme difficulty in breathing, and gynecological disorders. The site has never been properly cleaned up and itcontinues to poison the residents of Bhopal. In 1999, local groundwater and wellwater testing near the site of the accident revealed mercury at levels between 20,000 and 6 million times those expected. Cancer and brain-damage- and birth-defect-causing chemicals were found in the water; trichloroethene, a chemical that has been shown to impair fetal development, was found at levels 50 times higher thanEPA safety limits.[2]Testing published in a 2002 report revealed poisons such as 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane, chloroform, lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women.[3] In 2001, Michigan-based chemical corporation Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide, thereby acquiring its assets and liabilities. However Dow Chemical has steadfastly refused to clean up the site, provide safedrinking water, compensate the victims, or disclose the composition of the gas leak, information that doctors could use to properly treat the victims.

The agony of Bhopal

On 3rd December 1984, poison gas leaked from a Union Carbide factory, killing thousands. How many thousands, no one knows. Carbide says 3,800. Municipal workers who picked up bodies with their own hands, loading them ontotrucks for burial in mass graves or to be burned on mass pyres, reckon they shifted at least 15,000 bodies. Survivors, basing their estimates on the number of shrouds sold in the city, conservatively claim about 8,000 died in the first week. Such body counts become meaningless when you know that the dying has never stopped.

The Union Carbide factory in Bhopal seemed doomed almost from the start.The company built the pesticide factory there in the 1970s, thinking that India represented a huge untapped market for its pest control products. However sales never met the company’s expectations; Indian farmers, struggling to cope with droughts and floods, didn’t have the money to buy Union Carbide’s pesticides. The plant, which never reached its full capacity, proved to be a losing venture andceased active production in the early 1980s.

However vast quantities of dangerous chemicals remained; three tanks continued to hold over 60 tons of methyl isocyanate, or MIC for short. Although MIC is a particularly reactive and deadly gas, the Union Carbide plant’s elaborate safety system was allowed to fall into disrepair. The management’s reasoning seemed to be that since the plant hadceased all production, no threat remained. Every safety system that had been installed to prevent a leak of MIC—at least six in all—ultimately proved inoperative (see Figure 1).

Courtesy of SEMCOSH
Regular maintenance had fallen into such disrepair that on the night of December 2nd, when an employee was flushing a corroded pipe, multiple stopcocks failed and allowed water to flowfreely into the largest tank of MIC. Exposure to this water soon led to an uncontrolled reaction; the tank was blown out of its concrete sarcophagus and spewed a deadly cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, mono methyl amine and other chemicals that hugged the ground. Blown by the prevailing winds, this cloud settled over much of Bhopal (see Figure 2). Soon thereafter, people began to die.

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