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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.


(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,

p. 78-79.

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