Earlier this month marked a solemn 34 years since the horrendous Bhopal disaster. The worst industrial disaster in human history killed over 3,800 almost instantly, and tens of thousands in the following years.
The aftermath of the tragedy continues to affect the health of countless thousands, even three-and-a-half decades down the line. It serves as an enduring reminder of the real life impact on everyday people from irresponsible business and governmental practices.
December 3, 1984
The story actually begins late the night before, around 11 PM in the capital of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh. A small leak of the highly toxic chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant grew progressively more serious as pressure in a storage tank continued to build. A number of safety precautions had been foregone in the prior weeks, creating a rapidly deteriorating situation that operators of the factory had little control over.
At around 1 AM the following morning, gas pressure in the storage tank reached untenable levels and caused an equipment malfunction. A safety valve failed and released a toxic cloud of gas into the night sky over a city of almost one million inhabitants.
The Immediate Effects
According to the Indian Government over 500,000 people were exposed to the gas.
Almost four thousand died instantly. Concentrations of the gas were highest around the plant, and most fatalities occurred in the slum abutting the UCIL plant. Over the next few days, fatalities continued at a startling pace – reaching figures as high as 15,000 by some estimates.
Thousands of the sick and dying inundated hospitals. The confusion of the situation and uncertainty of the cloud’s chemical composition made responding effectively especially difficult.
Bhopal Disaster Continues to Affect Thousands
Over the next several years, premature deaths associated with the disaster continued to climb. Just two decades after the the incident, between fifteen and twenty thousand premature deaths had been reported.
People exposed to the gas all those years ago continue to feel its lingering touch. Rohit Jain, a Delhi-based photographer, reported seeing serious health problems while touring neighborhoods around the plant. He estimated that between 30% to 40% of the children he saw were afflicted with some kind of disability.
One victim, the 24-year-old Umar Khan, lost his younger brother Azhar to muscular dystrophy related to the accident last year. Umar has the condition too, and is worried about his own life expectancy. Umar and his brother wouldn’t be born for another decade following the accident, highlighting the severe genetic impact and long term effects.
The Bhopal Medical Appeal reports that toxic waste from the site had been discarded in three large solar evaporation ponds, where it leeched into the soil and groundwater. People in the area may have been using this contaminated groundwater for years.
Irresponsibility is Complicity
Leading up to the accident, little had been done to ensure the safety of the factory environs. A number of safety features, including a gas flare and a large refrigeration unit, were installed in the factory but were not operational at the time of the accident due to shortcuts in procedure.
The factory itself was built in an area zoned only for light industry and manufacturing, certainly not the heavy chemical production that was occurring at the Union Carbide subsidiary plant. The local government had been slow to enforce safety and industrial regulations for fear of upsetting the relationship with such a large provider of jobs.
Following the incident, parent company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) underwent an aggressive campaign to de-emphasize its connection with the Bhopal plant. Only following a settlement mediated by the Indian Supreme Court did UCC agree to pay out $470,000,000 to the victims and their families. This was a rate that was much lower than that being paid to victims of similar industrial malpractice in the United States – by the end of 2003, the average family of a Bhopal victim had received only $2,200 in compensation.
The anniversary of Bhopal reminds us all that when dealing with dangerous forces, the action and inaction of the controlling heights of our society have a real life impact on the health and livelihood of thousands of everyday people.
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