Around midnight on December 2, 1984, the citizens of Bhopal, India, a city of over 500,000 people in central India, were poisoned by approximately forty tons of toxic gases pouring into the night air from a largely abandoned chemical insecticide plant owned by the US-owned Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). The long-predicted gas leak at UCC was, and remains today, the worst industrial disaster in history.
- Abbey Wilson and Jillian Harbin (DePauw University)
- Tim Cope and Kevin Howley (DePauw University)
Released by faulty and neglected equipment, methyl isocyanate, phosgene and other highly toxic gases killed an estimated 8,000 people immediately. The death toll attributed to “that night” in the following weeks and months eventually rose to 20,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of others were harmed, in many cases permanently, with lung, liver, kidney, and immune system damages, and blindness. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) concluded that over 520,000 exposed persons had poisons circulating in their bloodstream causing different degrees of damage to almost all systems in the body.
The 1984 disaster may have faded in the world’s memory, but in Bhopal, the damaged births continue today. The very same factory that spewed out poison gas has been leaking deadly chemicals into the drinking water of about 30,000 people. In affected communities, there are epidemics of kidney disease and cancer, with hundreds of damaged children.
Indra Sinha, a Booker Prize nominee for his book on the Bhopal disaster, Animal’s People, explained why the gas leak that killed 20,000 people twenty-five years ago—and continues to create health problems for countless more—is still a national scandal: “After the night of horror, the factory was locked up. Thousands of tons of pesticides and waste remained inside. UCC never bothered to clean it. The chemicals were abandoned in warehouses open to wind and rain. Twenty-four monsoons have rusted and rotted the death factory. The rains wash the poisons deep into the soil. They enter the groundwater and seep into wells and bore pipes. They gush from taps and enter people’s bodies. They burn stomachs, corrode skin, damage organs and flow into wombs where they go to work on the unborn. If babies make it into the world alive, the poisons are waiting in their mothers’ milk.”
A Greenpeace survey found substantial and, in some locations, severe contamination of land and water supplies with heavy metals and chlorinated chemicals. From their samples, groundwater from wells around the site showed high levels of chlorinated chemicals including chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, indicative of long-term contamination. Additionally, lead, nickel, copper, chromium, hexachlorocyclohexane, and chlorobenzenes were found in soil samples. Overall contamination of the site and immediate surroundings is due both to routine spills and accidents during the operation of the factory, and to the continued releases of chemicals from the toxic wastes that remain on site.
According to New Delhi’s Centre for Science and the Environment, water found two miles from the factory contains pesticides at levels forty times higher than the Indian safety standard. In a second study, the UK-based Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) found a chemical cocktail in the local drinking water—with one carcinogen, carbon tetrafluoride, present at 2,400 times the World Health Organization’s guidelines.
Union Carbide Corporation—now the Dow Chemical Company (Dow), following a February 2001 merger—continues to claim over sixty years of research (including research on human “volunteers”) on methyl isocyanate (the gas that leaked from the Bhopal pesticide plant) as “trade secrets.” There is more than enough research to suggest that by withholding information, propagating misinformation and the withdrawal of funds meant for medical care, Dow–UCC has impeded the efforts of the victims to help themselves. The ICMR has in turn stopped all research into the health effects of the gas in 1994 and has yet to publish the findings of the twenty-four research studies it had carried out up to that point involving over 80,000 survivors. The alarming rise in cancers, tuberculosis, reproductive difficulties, and growth retardation among children born after the disaster remains undocumented. The official agency for monitoring deaths has been closed since 1992.
The local, BMA-funded Sambhavna clinic claims that one in twenty-five—a rate ten times higher than the national average—are born with severe birth defects including lameness and twisted or missing limbs, deaf-mute, brain-damage, hare-lips and cleft palates, webbed fingers, cerebral palsy, and tumors where eyes should be. Multiple generations are now affected; one victim, Mohini Devi, claims her children and grandchildren have experienced birth defects. “My real worry is my grandchildren. Already some have been born without eyes. Why is nobody doing anything for us?” she said.
In the absence of medical information, no treatment protocols specific to exposure-induced multi-systemic problems exist. Instead, in many places, ineffective and sometimes kidney-damaging drugs are prescribed to the thousands seeking relief and medical treatment. One exception is the Sambhavna Clinic, which in 1996 began offering survivors a combination of free modern medicine, ayurvedic herbal treatments, yoga, and massage.
While today tons of poisonous pesticides and other hazardous wastes remain scattered and abandoned on the Dow–UCC factory premises, insidiously poisoning the ground water and contaminating the land, the company and its former CEO Warren Anderson have distanced themselves from the “Indian-managed company,” eventually blaming employee sabotage. As a result, the disaster has done little to affect Dow–UCC. In February 1989, after forcing a paltry compensation settlement—$470 million as opposed to $3 billion demanded by the government of India—UCC’s share price jumped 44 cents and they went back to business as usual. Survivors in Bhopal received meager compensation. Most of them got a 25,000-rupee check (about US$500) for a lifetime of suffering caused by damage to their lungs, liver, kidneys, and the immune system.
Given the hundreds of thousands of victims dead and injured, the settlement worked out to less than 9 cents a day—only enough for one cup of tea each day—for nearly twenty years of unimaginable suffering. None of the thousands since born with gas-related congenital defects or illnesses from current water contamination have received help. When Dow acquired UCC, it denied further responsibility for the disaster. A Dow public relations official maintained that the settlement was “plenty good for an Indian.”
Union Carbide Corporation and Warren Anderson, then CEO of UCC, were charged with culpable homicide or manslaughter and proclaimed absconders by the Bhopal Court in 1992, after failing repeatedly to honor the summons of the court. Warren Anderson was arrested briefly in 1984 and then fled the country. Anderson’s whereabouts were considered unknown despite the fact that his residences, one in the Hamptons, an upscale New York suburb, are publicly listed. Neither the Indian government nor the US government is willing to support the warrants for Anderson’s arrest or Dow–UCC’s responsibilities. In fact, Indian campaigners working to hold UCC responsible for its actions claim that their government has called the now-closed factory “safe” and “open for the public to tour.” The Bhopal government also allegedly neglected to work toward any sort of allegations against UCC, and simply left the plant to continue leaking chemicals.
Now, Satinath Sarangi, of the Sambhavna clinic in Bhopal, says the government is working to strike a contract with Dow, which would yield a $1 billion investment, and would allegedly allow Union Carbide to overlook its obligations to clean up their spill. “This is all about the money. Politicians in India would rather do this than fight for people who suffered,” Sarangi said.
Randeep Ramesh, “Bhopal Water Still Toxic 25 Years After Deadly Gas Leak, Study Finds,” Guardian, December 1, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/01/bhopal-chemical-studies-toxic-levels.
Randeep Ramesh, “Bhopal Marks 25th Anniversary of Union Carbide Gas Disaster,” Guardian, December 3, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/03/bhopal-anniversary-union-carbide-gas#history-link-box.
Indra Sinha, “Bhopal: 25 Years of Poison,” Guardian, December 3, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/03/bhopal-anniversary-union-carbide-gas#history-link-box.
George Monbiot, “Bhopal Being Poisoned All Over Again,” Guardian, September 28, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/sep/27/bhopal-poison.
“Indian Court Issues Arrest Warrant for Warren Anderson, the Former Head of Union Carbide, in Bhopal Gas Leak Case,” Guardian, July 31, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/31/warren-anderson-arrest-warrant.
“Bhopal 1984 Until Today,” Bhopal Medical Appeal, December 1, 2009, http://www.bhopal.org/index.php?id=155.
“‘That Night,’” Bhopal Medical Appeal, December 1, 2009, http://www.bhopal.org/index.php?id=30.
“Bhopal’s Secret Disaster,” Bhopal Medical Appeal, December 1, 2009, http://www.bhopal.org/index.php?id=29.
“Health Issues,” Bhopal Medical Appeal, December 1, 2009, http://www.bhopal.org/index.php?id=100.
“Poisoned Water,” Bhopal Medical Appeal, December 1, 2009, http://www.bhopal.org/index.php?id=111.