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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.
could it happen?
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.
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.
Union Carbide's response
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 worlds 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.
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.