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The disaster

How could it happen?

Medical consequences

Today in Bhopal

Union Carbide's response

Union Carbide's toxic legacy

Long-term issues

The disaster
On the night of December 2nd-3rd 1984, 40 tons of methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide, mono-methyl amine and other lethal gases began spewing from Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. Nobody outside the factory was warned because the safety siren was turned off. Not until the gas was upon them in their beds, searing their eyes, filling their mouths and lungs, did the communities of Bhopal know of their danger.


Gasping for breath and near blind people stampeded into narrow alleys. In the mayhem children were torn from the hands of their mothers, never to see them again. Those who still could were screaming. Some were wracked with seizures and fell under trampling feet. Some, stumbling in a sea of gas, their lungs on fire, were drowned in their own bodily fluids. It was a massacre. Dawn broke over residential streets littered with corpses. In just a few hours numberless innocents had died in fierce pain and unimaginable terror.

Over half a million people were exposed to the deadly cocktail. The gases burned the tissues of the eyes and lungs, crossed into the bloodstream and damaged almost every system in the body. Nobody knows how many died but in the next days more than 7,000 death shrouds were sold in Bhopal. With an estimated 10-15 people continuing to die each month the number of deaths to date is put at close to 20,000. And today more than 120,000 people are still in need of urgent medical attention.

How could it happen?
The immediate causes of the disaster are related to a cost-cutting drive initiated by Union Carbide Corporation. The moves directed at enhancing profits included reducing the number of personnel; lowering minimal training for operatives from six months to 15 days; use of low quality construction material and day labour; cutting down on vital safety measures and the adoption of hazardous operating procedures.

In 1981 a plant operator was killed by a phosgene gas leak. A further phosgene leak in January 1982 severely injured 28 workers and in the same year MIC escaped from a broken valve resulting in four workers being exposed to the chemical. In addition to this workers were subject to routine low level exposure. The results of clandestine medical tests conducted on the workers by Carbide doctors were sent to the US and never released. A 'business confidential' safety audit conducted by a US team in May 1982 identified "61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC units". Nothing was done.

The number of operators for the MIC unit was cut in half between 1980 to 1984. On the night of the disaster six safety measures designed to prevent a leak were either malfunctioning, shut down or otherwise inadequate. The refrigeration unit was turned off in order to save $40 a day. More than 15 years later Union Carbide have not yet explained why the factory was of flawed design, subject to reckless cost-cutting, stored highly unsafe quantities of lethal chemicals and operated devoid of any adequate safety systems or emergency procedures.

Medical consequences
Poisons from the gases circulated through the blood streams of victims, carrying toxins and causing damage to the eyes, lungs, kidneys, liver, intestines, muscles, brain and reproductive and immune systems.

Studies by the Indian Council of Medical Research showed that the number of people with exposure related symptoms actually increased between 1987 and 1991. According to one study there were three times more people with respiratory symptoms at the end of this period than at the beginning. The damage to the respiratory system and particularly the lungs comprises the most significant part of the overall health damage. Bronchial asthma, Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease, recurrent chest infections and fibrosis of the lungs are the principal effects of exposure induced lung injury.

Some 43% of the women from the severely affected communities who were pregnant at the time of the disaster aborted. Study of growth and development of children whose mothers were exposed to the gases during pregnancy revealed that the majority of children had delayed gross motor and language sector development. Studies have also presented evidence of chromosomal damage.

A survey of psychiatric morbidity found that nearly 40% of those exposed suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

In 1994 the International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB) an independent group of 14 professionals from 11 countries, found significant multi-organ damage such as lung impairment, marked reduction in control of limb movements, reduced memory function in survivors and a range of other neurotoxic injuries.


Today in Bhopal
The problems are as serious as they were on the night of the disaster. Breathlessness, persistent cough, diminished
vision, early age cataracts, loss of appetite, menstrual irregularities, recurrent fever, neurological disorders, fatigue, weakness, anxiety and depression are just some of the most common symptoms among survivors. Immune systems have suffered. In the last five years tuberculosis, cancers and menstrual disorders among young women has risen alarmingly.
 

Union Carbide's response
The corporation refused to respond to the medical disaster in Bhopal with any degree of humanity, concentrating instead on liability evasion. The company's legal team arrived in Bhopal days before their medical team. The hand picked medical team constantly emphasised that the leaked gases would not have any long-term health effects. Silence, denial and misinformation obstructed the relief effort. Chemicals that had already killed around 8,000 people were "nothing more than a potent tear gas" the company maintained. They recommended using sodium thiosulphate as an antidote, then advised against it. Success of the drug would have established that toxins had reached people's bloodstreams rather than affecting only their eyes and lungs. The company was anxious to play down the effects in order to avoid greater financial liability.

To this day the corporation refuses to disclose medical information on the leaked gases, maintaining it to be a ‘trade secret’. Additionally, company 'experts' claimed that reports of victims' deaths were greatly exaggerated, and that the leak only killed 1,408 people. In their current Bhopal 'Factsheet', Union Carbide maintain that "40 persons were with permanent total disability, and 2,680 persons were with permanent partial disability" from gas exposure, and that "massive, one-time exposure to MIC has not caused cancer, birth defects, or other delayed manifestations of medical effects".

Union Carbide was directed to compensate those injured for the loss of their ability to work. The company refused to pay the Rs 350 crores (US $220 million) demanded by the survivors organisations in interim relief. After five years of legal wrangling the Indian Government agreed to an out of court settlement of US $470 million in February 1989. This was to be the full and final settlement of all civil and criminal liability. Thus, in order to safeguard profits, victims have been given less than US $350 for injuries they are likely to suffer all their lives. The world’s biggest industrial accident cost Union Carbide just 48 cents a share.

If the accident had happened in the US, the company would have been bankrupt overnight.


Union Carbide's toxic legacy

Actions by Union Carbide are compounding gas injuries even now. Reckless waste dumping has caused serious contamination of the Bhopal site. A recent Greenpeace report called the disused factory site a ‘global toxic hotspot’. Greenpeace came to this conclusion after testing groundwater and soil samples in and around the site. They found heavy concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals like mercury. Mercury has been found at between 20,000 to six million times the expected levels. Twelve volatile organic compounds, most greatly exceeding Environmental Protection Agency standard limits, were found to have seeped and continue to seep into the water supplies of an estimated 20,000 people in local communities. Municipal authorities have found water from over 100 tube wells to be unfit for drinking due to the presence of cancer-inducing chemicals. Yet survivors of the Union Carbide Gas disaster have no choice but to drink, wash and cook with this water every day.

Long-term issues
Anxiety, depression, insomnia and irritability are common among the affected people. Tuberculosis and many different forms of cancer are above average. Chromosomal aberrations were detected in an unusually large number of survivors indicating the likelihood of congenital malformation in future generations of the survivors. Even today very little is known about how to treat chronic exposure-induced diseases.

The people of Bhopal are marked by the tragedy socially as well as medically. Women find it hard to get married, widows have been outcast and some women have been deserted by their husbands due to an inability to conceive. Though women are often blamed, many men have become impotent.

Many more can no longer sustain their family economically. Over 70% of the exposed population were people earning subsistence wages. An estimated 50,000 are in need of alternative jobs because they can no longer do the physically demanding work that they did before. Less than 100 people affected by the gas have found regular employment under government economic rehabilitation schemes. Unable to carry on with physically demanding jobs, families have become economically devastated.

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