On this day in 1984, a gas leak started at a pesticide plant, known today as the Bhopal Disaster. Located in the town of Bhopal in central India, the gas leak at this pesticide plant is considered the world’s worst industrial disaster, with almost 4000 deaths (16000 claimed) and almost 560000 injured.
Bhopal was home to a pesticide plant owned by the American company Union Carbide. As part of the pesticide manufacturing process, methyl isocyanate (MIC for short) was kept on site (42 tonnes worth, far beyond a controllable amount). While normal safety precautions would have helped ensure that the MIC was secure and protected from leakage, there were several problems with the plant. In an inspection of the plant prior to the disaster, thirty individual problems were found at Bhopal, including: filling the MIC in tanks far beyond recommended levels, the shut down of a refrigeration system that would prevent overheating, no night shift supervisors, and lack of gas scrubbers. This information was reported back to the company’s headquarters in America, however it was not communicated back to the plant managers in Bhopal. As well, technical manuals in the plant were written in English, completely incomprehensible to the staff at the plant. Despite these glaring concerns, nothing was done to rectify this impending disaster.
On the night of December 2nd and December 3rd, 1984, water entered the tank in which MIC was stored, resulting in an exothermic (giving off immense heat and energy) reaction that increased the pressure of the tank. This increase in pressure caused the release of 30 metric tons of MIC into the Bhopal’s atmosphere within one hour. Had the faulty safety mechanisms that were reported earlier been fixed, the release of MIC into Bhopal’s atmosphere could have probably been prevented. The effects of the gas on Bhopal’s citizens were immediate. Acute symptoms of MIC inhalation include tearing, a ‘burning throat’ sensation, coughing, vomiting, and irritation of the eyes. In the autopsies of victims who passed away from the gas exposure, fluid build up in the brain, failure of the kidneys and liver were documented. In total, approximately 500000 people were exposed to MIC from the plant. 200000 of the victims were below the age of 15, and 3000 were pregnant women. The stillbirth rate in Bhopal increased by 300%, and the newborn mortality rate increasing by 200%. In total, almost 16000 people died within the first two weeks of the exposure from MIC related injuries. Over 150000 people today are still dealing with the effects of this exposure almost 30 years ago, and the drinking water and soil of Bhopal remains toxic to this day.
Union Carbide has, to this day, denied negligence on its part concerning the disaster at Bhopal. Union Carbide has stated that the plant was subject to sabotage, claiming it was impossible for water to enter the tank under normal circumstances. Regardless, repair of the deficient safety procedures that were made aware to Union Carbide could have minimized the outcome of the situation, making this a mute point. Currently, there is a fight to try the CEO of Union Carbide at the time, Warren Anderson, in an Indian court to answer for the disaster, however America has refused to extradite Anderson to India.
Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain (2013) is a historical drama feature film on this disaster (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0839742/). Starring Martin Sheen, Mischa Barton and Kal Penn, the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and will be screened in North America in early 2014. Here is a trailer to the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znvcQBua–w.