It may come as a surprise to learn that the Bhopal disaster of nearly 25 years ago is wreaking havoc upon the health of a new generation of Indians. Hundreds of cases of birth defects and cancer are recorded each year among the local population exposed to soil and water contaminated from this disaster site. It has frequently been called the world’s worst industrial accident.
On December 2, 1984 a storage tank at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India exploded, releasing about 40 tons of methyl isocyanate and other toxic gases onto the surrounding slums. The gas spread eight kilometers downwind and covered the city of nearly 900,000 people (1). Thousands were killed within days of the accident, while thousands more died over the following years. The death toll ultimately climbed to more than 20,000 and left even more with numerous disabilities and diseases (2).
However, to this day many are still dying and suffering from the lingering toxins inadequately stored at the factory site. After the gas leak, the factory was closed and all but abandoned by the company. To this day, piles of dangerous chemicals can be seen on the site and the rotting warehouses are full of sacks of poisons, which are all being washed deep into the soil with each year of monsoons. From there, the toxins travel in all directions to the wells of 30,000 people nearby who have no other option for drinking and wash water (3).
Independent researchers have reported this nearby groundwater to be contaminated with several toxic chemicals and heavy metals, yet when faced with details of these toxins Union Carbide has said it is not aware of any evidence to support such claims. Furthermore, they have admitted that methyl isocyanate is toxic only so far as to say it is a mild throat and ear irritant (4).
The gas leak was likely caused by the negligence of the Union Carbide in maintaining its equipment. The company operated its Bhopal factory well below the safety standards it maintained at its nearly identical factory in West Virginia. It was able to operate in this way partially because the state of Madhya Pradesh and the Indian government’s industrial safety and environmental regulations were lacking or not well enforced (1).
Immediately after the accident, the company tried to remove itself from any legal responsibility, but eventually paid $470 million in compensation to affected people. The average amount paid to families of the dead was $2,200 (5). This is a small compensation considering the large number affected and the duration of the health consequences, which are proving to be more long-term with each passing year.
Since the accident, Dow has merged with Union Carbide and refuses to assume liabilities at Bhopal or the task of adequately cleaning up the toxins left behind.
(2) Rallies held over Bhopal disaster. BBC News. 3 December 2004. Web. 28 September 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_as….
(3) Ramesh, Randeep. Bhopal: hundreds of new victims are born each year. The Guardian. 30 April 2008. Web. 28 September 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/200….
(4) Vickers, Paul. Bhopal faces risk of poisoning. BBC News. 14 November 2004. Web. 28 September 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_as….
(5) E. Broughton China massage services, The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review, Environmental Health 4 (6) (2005).