Bhopal Gas Tragedy


People Blinded By MIC During Bhopal Gas Tragedy

The Background

Bhopal, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, was an industrial and urban hub. It was also home to a pesticide plant owned by the American chemical corporation, Union Carbide, Inc. and its Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India, Ltd. The plant mainly manufactured carbaryl, a ubiquitous pesticide sold under the name Sevin. Sevin’s chemical composition comprised the toxic and flammable methyl isocyanate (MIC), phosgene, chlorine, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen cyanide. When MIC was accidentally released from a tank in the Bhopal facility, approximately five thousand people were killed, with another twenty thousand injured and two hundred thousand people affected. If one is exposed to an influx of MIC above 2 ppm, burning and tearing of the eyes, coughing, vomiting, blindness, devastating trauma to the stomach and intestine, clogging of the lungs and suffocation are some instantaneous effects. Long-term health damages to health include permanent blindness, permanently damaged lungs, corneal ulcers, skin damage, and potential birth defects in infants.

The Official Theory (Posed by Government Investigators)

There has been much speculation on how this catastrophe occurred, but the most accepted theory is that on December 3, 1984, water entered a storage tank containing forty two tons of methyl isocyanate and triggered a chemical reaction (hydrolysis) that increased the tank's temperature to over 200 degrees Celsius; the increased pressure caused the pressure release valve to open, thus allowing the gas to leak. Safety and maintenance within the plant were inadequate. Four safety measures that were implemented should have contained the reaction, but some act of negligence caused them to be shut off or malfunctioning at the time. The refrigerator designed to cool the chemical and slow its dissemination was shut off, and the relief valve stopped working as heat and pressure increased. A vent gas scrubber that should have counteracted the gas with caustic soda malfunctioned. In addition, the flare tower that was intended to burn the gas and render it harmless was under repair. Even if these measures had been in place, subsequent examinations found them to be faulty and insufficient for the dimensions of such a plant. The toxic MIC released from the plant was carried by winds and covered about 15 square miles, then reached densely populated areas filled with blue-collar workers, many of whom labored in nearby industrial facilities. Sleeping, oblivious residents were exposed fully to the cloud of gas. While hundreds died in their sleep, others suffocated in an attempt to escape the lethal gas. Many more died in the subsequent weeks.

Did You Know?

  • Although the Indian Government maintains that the tragedy was a result of the poorly designed plant, Union Carbide alleges that the Bhopal Disaster was an act of sabotage instead, by a disgruntled employee. If that were true, Union Carbide would then not be liable, as the disaster would be a deliberately orchestrated event in contrast to a result of the plant’s lax safety standards. However, nobody has been able to prove which theory is correct so far.

The Aftermath and the Consequences

The government as well as many volunteer groups orchestrated a massive relief effort immediately after the disaster, with emergency medical treatment, hospitals, and sustenance made available. However, doctors did not fully understand the effects of MIC and thus the medical care was not very beneficial. There were financial, legal, and political consequences both in India and around the world. Union Carbide’s stock plunged twenty five percent in the week following the disaster; the corporation denied responsibility for causing the disaster. This initiated litigations that would stretch on for years. In March of 1985, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act was sanctioned. This ensured that lawsuits related to the incident would be handled fairly and quickly, and that the Indian government would be sole representative for victims. In February of 1989, the Indian Government and Union Carbide reached an out-of-court agreement; Union Carbide was to pay 470 million U.S. dollars in compensation and for damages. CEO and Chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, was arrested on December 7, 1984. Six hours later, he was released on a bail of two thousand one hundred U.S. dollars. On June 7, 2010, seven former Union Carbide employees in their seventies received a two year prison sentence for causing death due to negligence. They were also released on bail. The disaster at Bhopal highlighted concerns that developing countries were sacrificing worker safety and stringent maintenance standards to keep foreign corporations on their soil. Also, questions are raised regarding the moral duty of American companies abroad to apply stricter environmental standards to their developments in said countries, despite the laxness of foreign governments. Many victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy still suffer, and few believe that events will change for the better until developing countries recognize the importance of proper health and safety standards.

Did You Know?

  • The environment surrounding the Bhopal plant was so toxic after the accident that leaves fell off all the trees almost immediately.
Bhopal Wasteland After Disaster