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examine the events contributing to the tragedy at Bhopal, India and their
repercussions and to draw conclusions based on these events.
Happened at Bhopal? Reading newspaper and magazine articles written immediately
following the events at Bhopal, it is apparent that it took some time for
authorities to determine the causes of the industrial accident. Speculation
seems to have run wild for a time following the accident. Drawing from later
statistics and information seems to be a more reliable method of determining the
most likely scenario. Where various alternate feasible possibilities have been
presented, we will try to include the most likely. At approximately midnight on
December 3, 1984, an unexpected chemical reaction took place in a Union Carbide
of India Limited storage tank. The storage tank contained methyl isocyanate,
(hereafter referred to as MIC) a toxic gas used in the process of a pesticide
called Sevin.(1) As part of the distilling process there was an extremely high
concentration of chloroform present. This caused corrosion of the tank. The tank
being made of iron provided a catalyst for the reaction. A large amount of water
was also introduced, approximately 120-240 gallons, which in combination with
the chemical, generated enough heat to start the reaction. The runaway reaction
released an uncontrollable amount of heat and this resulted in 30-40 tons of the
gas being vaporized and spread over approximately 30 square miles, killing
thousands of people and injuring hundreds of thousands.(2) The lack of
information on MIC in 1984 made it a very toxic and difficult to control
substance, according to Meryl H. Karol of the University of Pittsburgh?s
Graduate School of Public Health. He says, ?Although nominally a liquid at
room temperature, methyl isocyanate evaporates so quickly from an open container
that it easily turns into a colorless, odorless highly flammable and reactive
gas… I would hesitate having it in a laboratory.? He also quotes the OHSA
standard for exposure to MIC during an eight-hour day as 0.02 parts per million,
?far lower than what many Bhopal residents were exposed to.?(3) THE HEALTH
AFFECTS of exposure to MIC is disastrous. At low levels, MIC causes eyes to
water and results in damage to the cornea. At higher concentrations, muscles
constrict, and the bronchial passages have the equivalent of a severe asthma
attack.(3) Most of the deaths in India were due to this. Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan,
Assistant Director of Public Health Practice at the Centers for Disease Control
in Atlanta, who went to Bhopal to render assistance, said, ?There was edema,
substantial destruction…of alveolar walls, … a ulcerative bronchiolus…?
among patients at the severely crowded hospitals.(4) Serious damage to the
central nervous system after three to four weeks, including paralysis, and
psychological problems have also been a result.(3) The long-term affects of MIC
exposure are equally disastrous. According to the Indian Council of Medical
Research, at least 50,000 people are still suffering and new chronic cases of
asthma keep showing up as the population ages and 39% of the surrounding
population have some form of severe respiratory impairment.(5) Most of them will
suffer for the rest of their lives.(6) It is a conservative estimate that 5
people die every week as a result of the Bhopal accident.(7) Another
consideration is that in a social class that maintains a living through physical
labor, inability to perform results in starvation.(8) Affects on women were
profound. Out of 198 women living within 10 miles of the facility, 100 had
abnormal uterine bleeding.(1,5) Of the local women who were pregnant before the
accident, 43% miscarried and 14% of the babies carried to term died within a
month. Socially, these women are considered unwanted by potential husbands
because reproductive disorders are so commonplace that they are seen as
sterile.(5) It is unknown whether chromosomal damage will affect future
generations.(8) TOTAL EFFECTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT are not yet known.
Approximately 1,600 animals died on the first and second days after the
incident. This was a terrible environmental health risk. Eventually this problem
was solved by digging a giant one-acre mass grave. There was also damage to some
vegetation, animal and fish species, but not to others. The Indian Council of
Agricultural Research is studying this.(1) A VARIETY OF FAILURES were
contributing factors in this lethal cloud of chemicals descending on the
helpless, uninformed public. These failures include design failures, maintenance
failures, operations failures, emergency response failures, communications
failures, governmental failures and last but not least management failures. In
1982, a safety audit by the Union Carbide parent company revealed a number of
safety problems. The conditions that did not measure up were problems with the
manual controls of the MIC feed tank, unreliable gauges and valves, and
insufficient training of the operators. The Union Carbide of India division
claimed to have fixed all of these, but management never had auditors go back
and confirm. Another inherent problem is that the storage tanks were too large.
They had a capacity of 15,000 gallons. The smallest amount of water introduced
into the system would cause an exothermic reaction such as the one which
occurred, on an extremely large scale, instead of on a smaller scale if the
tanks did not have such a high volume.(1) The parent company, according to Mr.
Jackson Browning, Union Carbide?s Director of Health, Safety and Environmental
Affairs, did not even have detailed plans of the Indian plant, and the design of
safety procedures was left up to local managers.(9) When the vapor was released,
it was released into a highly populated area. The grounds in the immediate
vicinity were completely surrounded by vast numbers of shacks and homemade
temporary dwellings, some of them right up against the fence line.(10) This was
perfectly legal. The local government does not enforce zoning laws. The local
government had actually had water and electricity installed in over 80% of these
dwellings.(1,13) There was no buffer zone.(11) The local population was
completely uninformed concerning the hazards involved with living so close to a
chemical plant. Had the general population been informed that in case of an
accident they should breathe through a simple wet cloth, thereby preventing any
harm from MIC, it is likely fewer deaths and injuries would have occurred.
Instead, once awareness set in, hysteria prevailed, with people running to get
away. Noone knew to cover their faces with a wet cloth. One small piece of
information would have made a great difference. (8) Another factor to consider
is that the Indian government insisted as a term of allowing Union Carbide to do
business there, low qualified natives had to be employed at the facility. Many
of them were friends or relatives of the government officials, instead of the
qualified employees who should have been working there.(12) The local state
government had no oversight or regulation of the facility. This was likely due
to lack of technical knowledge and lack of institutional ability to implement
environmental control laws. Union Carbide took advantage of India?s less
expensive and laxer safety standards.(12) The accident may not have occurred had
proper maintenance been performed. The failure of the refrigeration equipment
which should have kept the temperature low, so that the MIC did not vaporize,
went completely unnoticed by unskilled maintenance workers.(13) This
refrigeration equipment was supposed to keep the MIC close to 32? F, instead it
reached approximately 200? F.(8) It had not been working for five months.(14)
In addition, a labor report shows that the maintenance department used a jumper
line installed for cleaning purposes and that same cleaning water line may have
been the source of the water injected into the MIC storage tank, causing the
accident.(15) The Operations department played a role in the disaster as well. A
vent scrubber, which was designed to neutralize escaping gas was turned off.
There was a flare tower, designed to burn off escaping gases. It was also turned
off. Noone has an explanation why.(13) The lack of emergency response was a
contributing factor. The sirens at the facility were turned off. Noone knows
why. The Bhopal community had no emergency plan. When the hospitals flooded with
tens of thousands of seriously ill and dying patients, it was nearly impossible
for them to receive medical care.(4) RESULTING from the incident at Bhopal is
among other things, increased spending on safety and environmental precautions.
In 1984, safety represented 1% of spending. It has now increased to over 4%.(16)
It is difficult to estimate whether this represents effective spending, but the
increased revenues devoted to safety certainly cannot hurt. Companies have begun
attempting to design plants that are ?idiot proof? as well as ?vandal
proof? and are starting to realize the need for back-up equipment, since they
will be blamed in instances of disaster.(12) Public opinion is an influencing
factor in the U.S., but abroad, it is not very effective in motivating big
companies to change their safety practices. However corporate banking DOES
influence international business. Since the Bhopal incident, banks have begun
turning down loans over environmental concerns. This has to do with concern over
liability and monetary loss instead of any humanitarian concern, but it has the
same end result.(16) Companies that show a poor track record in regard to safety
do not get to have the business opportunities that they would otherwise have.
The World Bank insists that projects receiving its loans comply with safety
standards. This includes complying with safer processes to replace more
hazardous ones.(13) In 1985, Dr. Gareth Green of John?s Hopkins University
School of Public Health and Hygiene, remarked to the Journal of the American
Medical Association, ?I think we need more knowledge about the location and
quantities of hazardous substances around the country. There needs to be
developed plans for dealing with problems should they occur.?(4) Dr. Green
could not have foreseen the future any more clearly if he were psychic. It took
awhile, but in 1992, OSHA enacted the Process Safety Management Standard. PSM
covers such planning. IT MAY BE CONCLUDED that chemical process plants should be
located nowhere near residential areas, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Strategic
site location could have eliminated the occurrence at Bhopal almost entirely.
The United Nations should have an equivalent department serving an OSHA-like
function in third-world countries, with trade sanctions imposed on those who do
not comply. The U.N. has been involved in many less humanitarian ventures
recently. Why not something purely protective in nature? It may also be
concluded that the value American chemical companies place on human life depends
largely on where the person lives and the penalties involved when lives are
Avoiding Future Bhopals: In the Aftermath of Catastrophe, What Can We Learn
From History?s Worst Industrial Accident?? ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 27, Sept 1985,
p. 6-13. (2)?Environmental Surprise: Expecting the Unexpected.? Kates,
William. ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 38, March 1996, p. 6-7. (3)?Fallout From a Chemical
Catastrophe.? Peterson, Ivar. SCIENCE NEWS, Vol. 126, Dec 15, 1984, p. 372.
(4)?After Coping With Crisis, Medicine Ponders Sequelae.? Marwick, Dr.
Charles. JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION, Vol. 253, April 12, 1985.
(5)?Persistently Toxic: The Union Carbide Accident In Bhopal Continues to
Harm.? Mukerjee, Modhusree. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Vol. 272, June 1995, p. 16.
(6)?The Fallout From Bhopal.? Lepkowski, William. SCIENCE DIGEST. Vol. 94,
Jan 1986, p. 52. (7)?Union Carbide Officials Face Prosecution.? Kumar,
Sanjay. NEW SCIENTIST, Vol. 138, May 1, 1993, p. 8. (8)?BHOPAL: 15th
Anniversary.? WWW.Corpwatch.org/Bhopal. (9)?Bhopal: The Lesson Sinks In.?
THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 295, June 22, 1985, p. 91. (10)?Permanent Scars of the
Bhopal Catastrophe.? DISCOVER. Vol. 7, April 1986, p. 9. (11)?What We Can
Learn From Bhopal.?Speth, James. ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 27, Jan/Feb 1985, p 15.
(12)?Gassed in Bhopal.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 293, Dec 15, 1984, p. 12-14.
(13)?Poisoned Legacy.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 293, Dec 15, 1984, p. 77-78.
(14)?Union Carbide; Not Us.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 294, March 23, 1985, p.
78-79. (15)?New Labor Report on Bhopal Plant.? ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 27, Sept.
1985, p. 23. (16)?Bhopal: Ten Years On.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 333, Dec 1994,
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