How soon we forgot. Over 30 years ago, on the night of December 3, 1984, the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released 30 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas into the air. The factory was surrounded primarily by poor slums, exposing more than half a million souls to the deadly cloud.
The thick, heavy gas stayed low to the ground, causing victims throats and eyes to burn, inducing vomiting, internal bleeding, and death. Estimates of the death toll vary from as few as 3,800 in the early days to as many as 16,000 over the years.
How could this have happened in today’s modern age?
In the 1970s, the Indian government lured Union Carbide (UC) to build a pesticide plant in Bhopal in central India. The government itself would keep a 22% stake in the company’s Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited. The plant would produce the pesticide carbaryl using methyl isocyanate (MIC). The densely populated Bhopal site was unfortunately not zoned for such a hazardous industry.
In 1984, the factory operated with safety equipment and procedures far below the standards found in its sister plant in the US’s West Virginia. The local government was aware of the safety issues, but unwilling to burden the owners with pollution regulations for fear of the economic impact and the loss of such a large regional employer.
At 11 pm on 2 December 1984, while a million Bhopal resident slept in the nearby slums, an operator at Plant C noticed a leak of methyl isocyanate gas and growing pressure inside storage tank #610. A faulty valve allowed water meant for cleaning pipes to mix with 40 tons of MIC. The vent-gas scrubber, which neutralized toxic emissions, had been turned off 3 weeks earlier. A refrigeration unit that cooled the storage tank had been drained of coolant for use elsewhere. The gas flare tower was out of action for 3 months. Pressure and heat from the MIC + water exothermic reaction continued to build for 2 hours.
Finally, at 1 am, December 3, a loud explosion rumbled through the plant as a safety valve blew away, sending a plume of methyl isocyanate gas into the night air. Within minutes, the surrounding streets of Bhopal were flooded with the toxic gas cloud. Within hours, those same streets were littered with human corpses and the carcasses of cows, dogs and birds. An estimated 3,800 people died that night, mostly in the poor slums adjacent to the plant. As a cool morning breeze picked up, it carried the poisonous yellow gas to the rest of the city, killing even more.
The Union Carbide plant’s alarm system was not triggered for hours. No alarm was raised by the factory managers to the city. Suddenly, thousands of people awoke choking. Those that could, started running to Bhopal’s 2 local hospitals. They were soon overwhelmed, a crisis exacerbated since doctors didn’t know what gas was causing the odd symptoms they were seeing. Victims were coughing up blood, unable to breathe, fainting from dizziness, suffered blistering skin rashes, and sudden blindness. Bhopal’s doctors had no experience in dealing with an industrial disaster.
“I woke up suffocating! It felt like someone had thrown hot coals in my eyes.”Quote from Bhopal victim
In the neighborhoods closest to the plant, the gas caused internal hemorrhaging, pneumonia and death, leaving bodies in the streets as they tried to flee their homes. The government later estimated over 3,000 people died within a few hours. The two hospitals treated over 50,000 patients in the first 2 days.
Methyl isocyanate is extremely toxic and, if its air concentration reaches 21ppm (parts per million), it causes death within minutes. Near the Bhopal plant, the level was several times higher! Bhopal had a population of about 8,500,000 souls that night. Approximately a half a million people were immediately exposed.
Overwhelmed with the dead, mass burials and cremations began within days.
Officially, the government stated the gas leak was contained in 8 hours. It’s estimated that about 40 tons of methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide factory. Estimates of the dead in the first few days run as high as 10,000, with 20,000 premature deaths reported in the subsequent 20 years.
Immediately after the disaster, UC began to distance itself from responsibility, shifting blame to its Indian subsidiary. It also spread sabotage theories that it was perpetuated by Sikh extremists, but no evidence existed to substantiate that. At every turn, Union Carbide attempted to manipulate and withhold data. To this date, the company has never stated exactly what was in the deadly cloud that enveloped the city that December night.
The toxic plume had barely cleared when the first multi-billion dollar lawsuit was filed in a U.S. court. This was the beginning of years of litigation in which the affects of the tragedy on Bhopal’s poor were largely ignored.
The Indian government sued Union Carbide in a civil case.
In a 1989 settlement agreed by the Indian Supreme Court, UC finally agreed to pay $470 million to the Indian government, to be distributed to Bhopal victims as a final settlement. The figure was based on the disputed claim that only 3000 people died and 100,000 suffered permanent disabilities. The Indian government, notorious for its corruption, has yet to distribute all of the settlement. Had compensation in Bhopal been paid at the same rate that victims were awarded in US, the liability would have been greater than $10 billion!
By 2003, compensation had been awarded to over 500,000 people. The average amount to families of the victims was between only $550 to $2,200, which could not pay for the chronic lung ailments, life-long eye problems, and birth defects survivors developed.
As a final insult, Union Carbide closed its Bhopal plant and failed to completely clean up what was now a hazardous waste site. Today, the rusting, deserted complex continues to leak toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the soil and aquifers of Bhopal. Thousands of tons of hazardous waste remain buried underground. In 1999, Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide for $9 billion in stock. In 2009, the Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment monitoring lab reported that pesticide groundwater contamination was still detectable 3 km from the factory.
As its legacy, the Bhopal tragedy became the worst chemical catastrophe in global history to date, and the name ‘Union Carbide‘ is today synonymous with industrial disaster.
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