Benchmarks: December 3, 1984: Bhopal gas leak kills thousands

by Cassandra Willyard
Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Dec. 3, 1984, Aziza Sultan woke to the sound of coughing. When she opened her eyes, she could see that the room was filled with a white haze. She heard people shouting “Run, run.” Then she too began to cough. Each breath burned her lungs.

Sultan grabbed her daughter’s hand and picked up her son, who had passed out from the fumes. Outside, the children began vomiting. Sultan, who was two months pregnant, miscarried and lost control of her bowels. “We had just one thought in mind and that was to reach Hamidia hospital,” she said in her account of the event.

Sultan’s story is not unique: That night, the streets were packed with people screaming for help, running, vomiting and convulsing. Nearly half a million people in Bhopal, India, were exposed to a toxic gas that had leaked from a nearby pesticide plant. Approximately 3,800 people died immediately. Thousands more died in the coming days. Those who survived recovered slowly or not at all.

Bhopal’s pesticide plant was built in 1969 to manufacture Sevin, a pesticide used throughout Asia to kill beetles, weevils and worms. The plant was operated by Union Carbide India, Limited, but an American company, Union Carbide Corporation, held more than half the stock. Still, UCC is careful to point out that the plant was “designed, built and managed … using Indian consultants and workers.”

The leak began on Dec. 2, when water entered a tank that was used to store methyl isocyanate, a toxic gas and a key ingredient in Sevin. The water reacted with the gas, causing extreme pressure and heat that some say caused the tank to explode and others say overwhelmed the safety valve.

Exactly how the water entered the tank is also a source of debate. UCC says it was sabotage. But others suggest that the plant’s owners were known for lax safety standards. The workers say that the safety systems that should have kicked in when the water entered the tank — for example, a refrigeration unit designed to keep the tank cool — weren’t working properly.

Either way, the tank spewed 40 tons of poisonous gas into the air. The toxic cloud was mostly methyl isocyanate, a compound that can irritate the throat and eyes, cause chest pain and shortness of breath, and, in large doses, trigger convulsions, lung failure and cardiac arrest. But some experts suggest that the reactions inside the tank generated enough heat to turn methyl isocyanate into its even deadlier cousin: hydrogen cyanide. Listed as a chemical weapon by the Chemical Weapons Convention, hydrogen cyanide can stop respiration. Because the deadly mixture was heavier than the air, it stuck close to the ground, choking thousands of people who lived nearby.

In 1989, the Supreme Court of India ordered Union Carbide to pay $470 million in damages in an out-of-court settlement. UCC agreed, but noted that the amount is more than any previous settlement award in India, and more than what U.S. lawyers deemed “fair.” But it’s unclear how much of that money went to the victims. In fact, as of 2006, the government still had $390 million, the result of interest earned on money remaining after all claims had been paid. During an interview in 2003, Satinath Sarangi, an activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said he would like to see that money passed out to the victims, who he says received only $2,000 for a death in the family and $500 for injuries.

The areas engulfed by gas were some of Bhopal’s poorest neighborhoods. Many of the gas survivors are still too ill to work. And additional health problems continue to crop up — blindness, respiratory illnesses, reproductive problems and neurological and immune disorders, to name a few. The pesticide plant was shuttered more than a decade ago, but never fully cleaned up. Helped by the rains, the plant’s waste ended up in the groundwater. In 1996, the state pollution control board found traces of pesticides in the local wells. But it wasn’t until 2004 that the federal government ordered the state to provide the community with clean drinking water.

And officials have yet to agree on how to finish cleaning up the toxic land where the plant once stood — now a labyrinth of corroding metal and weeds. In late September 2008, the BBC reported that India’s defense ministry and the National Institute of Disaster Management had both refused to carry out remediation. And Dow Chemical, which purchased Union Carbide in 2001, says the company isn’t liable.

Update: Since this story went to press, there have been new developments. In early November, a U.S. appeals court reinstated claims by plaintiffs in Bhopal seeking to uncover Union Carbide's role in the environmental disaster. Following a bid by Dow Chemical, the claims had been dismissed by a lower court in 2006 and 2007, but the appeals court stated that the plaintiffs hadn't been given sufficient notice to assemble their case in response to that dismissal bid. Union Carbide asserts that this is a procedural issue and that the case will still ultimately be dismissed.

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