Satinath Sarangi, the Hindu, April 22, 2008
In addition to knowing about and treating their poison-ravaged bodies, the people in Bhopal need research to know what lies in store for the children born to gas-affected and contamination-affected parents.
Right to knowledge: A Bhopal gas tragedy survivor sitting in protest in New Delhi.
India is considered to be the third largest scientific humanpower, yet some of the most basic information on the Bhopal disaster remains unavailable even after 23 years. While government scientific agencies remain oblivious to this, the victims continue to struggle for such knowledge. Sitting in Jantar Mantar after an 800-kilometre walk are 50 victims of the Union Carbide gas disaster demanding that the Prime Minister who set up the Knowledge Commission set up an empowered commission on Bhopal for medical research and health monitoring.
In 1985, some among the women padyatris had marched to the local government hospital, holding bottles of urine. They demanded that doctors examine their bodies to see if they should carry on or terminate their pregnancies. They expected the doctors to test the amount of thiocyanate in their urine for an evaluation of the toxins circulating in their bodies. They wanted them to administer sodium thiosulphate injection so that they could excrete some of the toxins they had involuntarily inhaled on that terrible night. They were worried that they might give birth to children with defects. The women were denied medical tests and advice, and police chased them away with sticks. Ironically, this happened in March 1985 when medical researchers from the Indian Council of Medical Research were carrying on a double blind clinical trial to test the efficacy of sodium thiosulphate as a detoxificant for the gas exposed.
While the fears of the women regarding the teratogenic effect of Union Carbide’s gases were realised soon after, the results of the clinical trial by the ICMR took 22 years to be published. Its conclusion — sodium thiosulphate administered intravenously could indeed cause the body to excrete the poisons circulating in the blood stream. ICMR’s data indicates that over 23,000 people have died so far as a consequence of the disaster.
Without doubt if ICMR’s results on sodium thiosulphate trial were made known in 1985, just the simple administration of this inexpensive drug could have saved many people.
Rest of the history of ICMR’s involvement in Bhopal is no less scandalous. Twenty two of the 24 research projects carried out by ICMR between 1985 and 1994 remain unpublished. For years after the disaster, for reasons that remain unexplained, there was an official ban on publication of medical research on Bhopal. The ban was lifted in 1996 but ICMR is yet to share its findings with doctors in Bhopal let alone the 100,000 Bhopal people who were part of the studies.
While ICMR is keeping its Bhopal research findings boxed up, Union Carbide continues to withhold unpublished research on the health effects of Methyl Isocyanate, the poison gas. Over the last two decades several requests made to the highest officials of Union Carbide to disclose the findings of the research it carried out for several years at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute at the University of Pittsburgh have been denied. Just last month, the issue came up in the discussion of the faculty of IIT Bombay with officials of Dow Chemical, Union Carbide’s current owner. The officials declared unfamiliarity with the research, promised to try and obtain the findings but would not commit to a time line.
Union Carbide has not been as successful in suppressing information with regard to the environmental health consequences of its disposal of hazardous waste from the pesticide factory. Internal documents of the corporation obtained through the New York district court include bioassay reports of 100 per cent fish mortality in samples of ground water from in and around the factory at five to 10 times dilution.
Through persistent efforts under the Right to Information Act, one of the Bhopal padyatris recently obtained copies of quarterly monitoring reports of ground water quality from the State Pollution Control Board. These reports show that chemicals known to cause damage to brain, lungs, liver and kidneys and give rise to cancers and birth defects are present in high concentrations in the water of the local community hand pumps. Sadly, the ICMR has not found it fit to initiate research on the health impact of the contamination of ground water that continues to be routinely used by 25, 000 people.
Reason for agitation
The big reason why the victims of Bhopal continue to agitate for generation and publication of health information against its deliberate denial by the Indian government and the number one chemical corporation of the world is that such information is essential for their health and lives. In the absence of research, providing temporary symptomatic relief has been the mainstay of medical care ever since the morning of the disaster. The indiscriminate prescription of steroids, antibiotics and psychotropic drugs is compounding the damage caused by the gas exposure.
Despite spending over Rs. 300 crore from the public exchequer and establishing more hospital beds per 1,000 population in Bhopal than in the U.S. or Europe, the failure of the government’s system of healthcare to offer sustained relief has led to a proliferating business for private doctors and nursing homes. In the severely affected areas, most of the meagre compensation has gone to private doctors, nearly 70 per cent of who are not even professionally qualified. Yet they constitute the majority of the medical care providers.
In addition to knowing about and treating their poison-ravaged bodies, the people in Bhopal need research to know what lies in store for the children born to gas-affected and contamination-affected parents. While the Bhopalis have been clamouring for this information for 23 years, the ICMR has not exactly covered itself in glory in this respect. From 1988 to 1991, ICMR’s research team in Bhopal reported that children of gas-exposed parents had delayed physical and mental development and lower values for anthropometric parameters such as height and mid-arm circumference compared to children born to unexposed parents. Despite the positive and significant findings regarding teratogenic effect of the toxic exposure, and desperate requests from the Principal Investigator that the study be continued till the children attain puberty, it was wound up abruptly in June 1991 following directions from the ICMR headquarters.
The specially empowered commission for long-term research and rehabilitation that the Bhopal padyatris are asking for is long overdue. Let us hope that the government finally summons the political will to stop the medical disaster in Bhopal by setting up such a commission.
(The writer is a member of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, and founder-trustee of Sambhavana Trust Clinic offering free treatment to gas victims and their children.)
Bhopal gas victims
The Hindu needs to be complimented for highlighting the issue of the Bhopal gas victims (article “It is bad science to keep information back,” April 22). It is a very serious matter, and indeed a matter of shame, that even after 23 years of the tragedy, the affected people are fighting even for information. I have been watching with dismay the travails of the people who marched from Bhopal to Delhi and continue to camp at the Jantar Mantar just to catch the attention of the world while the 24×7 media are busy with other issues.
The Sambhavana Trust and the Bhopal Group for Information and Action need all the help to force the government to set up an empowered commission on Bhopal for medical research. I appeal to the media to do more to highlight the cause of these people, who are slowly being pushed into the zone of collective forgetfulness for which our countrymen are famous.
The article highlights one of the most worrying trends in today’s corporate dominated world — “corporate epidemiology.” It has been well established the world over that corporate money and muscle power have subverted science to serve their interests. In India too, there have been numerous examples of corporate bullying of scientists who are doing research on issues directly impacting on the lives of common people. When scientists do go ahead and publish their findings, they are slapped with defamation and criminal suits. This trend needs to be urgently responded to for the good of the country.