AFP, December 2, 2007
BHOPAL, India — Hundreds of thousands of babies have been born in the years since a deadly gas billowed over Bhopal in 1984, but the survivors of that night say their children have been forever stunted by the tragedy.
Thousands died in the early hours of December 3, 1984, when the central Indian town’s Union Carbide pesticide plant disgorged 40 tonnes of lethal methyl isocyanate gas in one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.
Tens of thousands more survived but suffered severely disabling effects from the gas.
Activists say their own research shows the gas leak is claiming another generation of victims — and are calling for new medical studies to be carried out on reproductive defects related to the leak.
Children born to those exposed to the gas are smaller, thinner and have disproportionately shrunken torsos compared to those born to unexposed parents, they say.
“Research done in the past is insufficient and key aspects of the disaster and its aftermath have been ignored in research projects,” Satinath Sarangi, who runs the Sambhavna Trust, an advocacy group and charity dedicated to the gas victims, told AFP.
He said that the Indian Council for Medical Research, which carried out most of the studies of the after-effects of the disaster, wrapped up its studies too soon.
“Most studies done by ICMR were terminated as early as 1989 and the rest by 1994,” said Sarangi, who plans to release the findings of research carried out by his organisation on Monday’s anniversary of the gas leak.
“Pleas for continuing the studies were ignored.”
Some of the ICMR studies from that time seen by AFP showed that children of exposed mothers had delayed physical and mental development.
The government has estimated that half a million people were exposed to the toxic gas when it leaked in 1984 and officials say about 800,000 people still suffer from various after-effects of inhaling the poisonous fumes.
A 1985 study by the Medico Friends Circle, a volunteer group of health workers, found that babies born to women pregnant at the time of the gas disaster suffered from severe malformations.
Some ICMR findings published in 1996 found a higher rate of spontaneous abortion among more than 2,600 pregnant mothers exposed to the leak but did not find a significantly higher rate of malformations.
Activists say that since then there have been no major long-term official studies on the effects of chemical exposure on children born to exposed parents despite local accounts of high rates of serious congenital health problems.
Chronic exposure to dangerous chemicals that have seeped into soil and groundwater around the plant site also remains an understudied concern.
Activists say Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide in 2001, should clean up the site.
But Dow has long insisted that all liabilities regarding the disaster were settled when Union Carbide concluded a 470-million-dollar compensation settlement with New Delhi in 1989.
Survivors also blame the Indian government for failing to make sure that money went to providing adequate health care or compensation to survivors of the tragedy.
“Children suffering congenital deformities continue to be denied medical attention,” said Rashida Bee, a gas leak survivor and activist with the Chingari Trust, which works with victims of the tragedy.
“Only 14 children received official assistance for heart surgery and 13 received assistance in diagnosis for congenital brain anomalies between 1992 and 1997.”
Gas survivors worry that these children too will see the effects of the 1984 leak when they have families of their own.
“The problem in the second generation due to gas exposure is one that will affect tens of thousands, and potentially many more in the future,” warned survivor Champa Devi Shukla, vice president of the Bhopal Gas Affected Stationary Workers’ Union, which represents staff of units established by the government to rehabilitate survivors.
More than 3,500 people died immediately from the gas leak but the total death toll has climbed to more than 15,000 today, according to government figures.
Bhopal rights activists say the real figure is double that while Amnesty International estimated in 2004 that between 22,000 and 25,000 people had died as a result of the tragedy.