The world's worst industrial disaster ever took place in Bhopal, India on December 2, 1984, when lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from a Union Carbide pesticide plant blanketed the city, killing as many as 16,000 people (one of the highest estimates) and injuring 500,000 others. The deadly gas escaped from plant, located on the outskirts of the city, and passed over the towns of Jaiprakash and Chhola to strike Bhopal.

Estimates of the death toll vary quite a bit in part because many were killed over a period of time from illnesses related to the disaster. The official immediate death toll was 2,259. As of 2008, the government of Madhya Pradesh had paid compensation to the family members of 3,787 victims killed by the gas release, and to 574,366 injured victims. A 2006 government affidavit stated that the leak caused 558,125 injuries, including 38,478 temporary partial injuries and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries. Some have estimated that 8,000 died within two weeks, and another 8,000 or more have since died from gas-related diseases. [Source: Wikipedia]

Union Carbide was one of the first American companies to invest in India. It set up the Bhopal factory in 1980 to produce the powerful pesticide Sevin and “help the country’s agricultural sector increase its productivity and contribute more significantly to meeting the food needs of one of the world’s most heavily populated regions.”

The MIC gas that did the damage was used to make pesticides. Twenty-seven tons of it leaked out of a large storage tank after an explosion and drifted over Bhopal neighborhoods near the factory while people were sleeping. People awoke gasping and choking on their own body fluids. The tank was 90 percent full even though safety regulations s specified it to never be more than half full. At the Union Carbide facility in West Virginia MIC is kept in small concentrations to minimize the risk.

The cloud of gas, which some said sparkled in the street lights, drifted towards the train station and slums near the factory. Some died in their sleep. Some were trampled to death try to escape it. Entire neighborhoods tried to flee from the gas. One man reported seeing a ball of gas bouncing down a road and watching it envelop his wife and children and kill them instantly. When a train pulled into the station passengers were horrified to see bodies piled on the platform. As they got off they too inhaled the gas and died. People lost control of the bladders and bowels as they fled. It took a while to get the Bhopal story out to the world. Bhopal had no international telephones lines and the story had to be "pigeoned" out on the 3:00pm flight to New Delhi.

The cause of the disaster remains a matter of debate. The Indian government and local activists say slack management and poor pipe maintenance caused a backflow of water into a MIC tank, triggering the disaster. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) has argued for decades that water entered the tank through an act of sabotage. According to Amnesty International: “On the night of 2nd December, 1984, toxic gas had leaked from a pesticide factory run by Union Carbide, India Ltd spreading fumes over a large residential area in Bhopal. Between 7,000 and 10,000 people died within just three days of the leak, our researchers at Amnesty International have since estimated. Hundreds of thousands more were poisoned. Despite the deaths, the many years gone by, and the numbers of people who today still suffer from chronic health conditions as a result of the leak, justice is yet to be served. Survivors have not received adequate compensation for their injuries, the polluted factory site has not been cleaned up, and the companies involved have not been held to account.

Death and Injuries Caused by Bhopal Disaster

Bhopal was home to around 800,000 people. Around 3,000 died immediately. Another 4,000 to 7,000 died in the next few days, many in horrible agony. According to Amenity International another 15,000 died years later from cancer, tuberculosis, gynecological diseases and other illnesses. In the early 2000s 10 to 15 people died from poison-related diseases every month.

Tens of thousands suffered from blindness and ulcers. As of 2004, an estimated 100,000 people were disabled or living with chronic illnesses of the eyes and lungs and diseases related to the disaster. Many suffered pain and misery on a daily basis. Around 150,000 required some type of long-term medical care. There have also been problems of infertility and birth defects. Children born in Bhopal are often underweight and have unusually small heads and high rates of extra or joined fingers and toes, three eyes and fluid in the brain.

In 2004 one survivor told the Strait Times she lost three members of her family to disaster. Her husband died of pancreatic cancer. One son committed suicide after years of pain and coughing up blood every day. Her youngest son died at the age of 20 after a lengthy disease.

The child of survivors told Amnesty International: “I have always wondered what my life would have been like if the Bhopal gas disaster had not happened. From childhood I have seen my father suffer from serious heart problems and my mother face difficulties with her eyesight. I was born ten years after the disaster. But I have seen friends and relatives in my community born with disabilities and deformities.”

Eyewitness Account of the Bhopal Disaster

Moira Sutcliffe, who was a medical student at the time of disaster, wrote: “I flew to Bhopal from Delhi on Sunday 2 December 1984 to begin my elective, which I had arranged to spend in the paediatric department at Hamidia Hospital. In the next two weeks 1337 children were admitted to the department. Of these 119 died and Bhopal became a household name. As the only outsider I was in a unique position to observe the reaction of the city and its medical resources to the world's worst industrial disaster. This report recounts my impressions of how the hospital and staff coped with the disaster and describes some of the clinical features of the toxic gas poisoning. [Source: Moira Sutcliffe, medical student, Bristol University, 1884 British Medical Journal Volume 290, June 22, 1985 /]

“I spent the first night of my stay with Dr Bhandari, the professor of paediatrics. At about 1 30 am I was woken by the repeated ringing of the doorbell followed by the entry of several people who were coughing violently. At the same time I noticed a sweetish smell, my eyes were mysteriously stinging and watering, and my throat felt raw. I heard the distant sound of a siren, but this being my first night in Bhopal I thought nothing of the incident and went back to sleep. When I woke the next morning I heard that there had been a major gas leak from the Union Carbide insecticide plant about a mile from the hospital, but the nature of the gas was not yet known. /

“At first the local news reports knew little more than we could deduce from seeing the numbers of affected people who had flooded into the hospital grounds. The earliest reports suggested that about 30 people had died. With each subsequent news report we listened with disbelief as further details about the horrifying story began to emerge. Even after the first full day we were unable to believe the estimate from the BBC World Service of 2000 dead-later even this proved to be conservative.” /

Eyewitness Account of the Dying After Bhopal Disaster

Moira Sutcliffe wrote: “The dead and dying arrived by the truckload, others came by rickshaw or were carried by relatives. For some the effort of the journey itself proved too much, and they died soon after arrival. Many families were split up during the initial panic, everywhere there were people looking for missing relatives. There were long queues of people trying to identify relatives in the mortuary. From an early stage when the mortuary was full, other unidentified bodies were laid out on a nearby lawn and under hastily erected shelters. Facilities overwhelmed The facilities in the hospital and the manpower became increasingly overstretched as the enormity of the disaster became apparent. The doctors were quite overwhelmed. I felt even more helpless; having arrived only the day before I had been unable to see inside the hospital or be introduced to the staff, and was unable to speak the language.[Source: Moira Sutcliffe, medical student, Bristol University, 1884 British Medical Journal Volume 290, June 22, 1985 /]

“For the first few days I was frustrated that I was not able to do more to help. Without a doctor to interpret for me there was little that I could do on my own. I joined up with a group of other medical students to help administer eye drops, give injections, set up drips, and distribute food. Doctors worked around the clock giving repeated injections; there was no time to resterilise needles between patients. The doctors were unable to spend much time to help any one child, dividing their time between the ill and the dying. Later on I was able to examine the children as they arrived and suggest treatment. I also helped to ventilate dying children and attempt cardiac massage. /

“Many hundreds of victims died within the first few hours of the gas leak, death being caused by respiratory failure resulting from the severe pulmonary oedema. The main complaints of those who survived were of a sensation of intense heat, burning eyes, blindness, vomiting, choking, coughing, breathlessness, and a feeling of suffocation. At first the precise toxic effects of the gas were not known so treatment was symptomatic-with antibiotic eyedrops, oxygen inhalation, and intravenous frusemide, steroids, and aminophylline to relieve respiratory distress. /

“Of the 119 deaths in the paediatric department from 3-14 December, 106 occurred in the first four days after exposure. The cause of death in most cases was cardiac arrest associated with respiratory failure. On examination these children with toxic lung damage were breathless and hyperventilating but not cyanosed. Many had audible wheezes and grunts, and widespread rhonchi and crepitations were heard with the stethoscope. By the Thursday the initial rush of people coming in had slowed though the death toll was still rising: the official figure now exceeded 2000.” /

Treatment of the Children After the Bhopal Disaster

Moira Sutcliffe wrote: “The most severely affected children were attended to in the intensive treatment room, which was about 20 feet square and supplied with only one sink and an electric socket. Rows of infants and older children on drips filled the couches, while others lay on the floor or were held by their parents while they received treatment. Two or three children would be receiving oxygen through nasal cannulae delivered from the same gas cylinder. Most of these children admitted to the intensive treatment room died of respiratory failure within the next few days. The wide corridors of the hospital were packed with victims, several members of each family requiring urgent treatment. The luckier ones had a bed-for the whole family. By the Wednesday these families who had been camping in the ward corridors were being moved out to tents erected nearby by the army. Relief agencies provided food for the victims-milk, bananas, and biscuits. [Source: Moira Sutcliffe, medical student, Bristol University, 1884 British Medical Journal Volume 290, June 22, 1985 /]

“The children were treated with intravenous frusemide and steroids to help reduce the severe pulmonary oedema, and aminophylline to relieve the wheezing. After about a week about 15 children a day were still being admitted to the wards, mainly with respiratory complaints -cough, breathlessness, and respiratory infections. The eye problems, which had caused widespread distress in the first few days, had been due to the direct chemical irritation, causing painful watering eyes, local oedema, and photophobia. The irritant gas had caused superficial ulceration, which led to temporary corneal opacity in some cases. Prophylactic neomycin eye drops helped to keep the rate of infection low, and atropine drops were also given to prevent the formation of posterior synechiae, though it caused further problems of blurred vision and occasionally induced acute glaucoma. Fortunately, the corneal ulceration was superficial and generally healed without scarring. The mobile preventative ophthalmology units played an important role in the follow up of the eye complications in the community. Some children also showed signs of convulsions, hemiparesis, and coma. /

“On 8 December a German toxicologist, Dr Daunderer, visited Bhopal and reinforced the views held by the head of the forensic medicine department, Dr Heereshchandra, that the effects of the methyl isocyanate gas were mediated via its breakdown into cyanide and other toxic amines. If this were the case there was a specific antidote, sodium thiosulphate. The drug was thought to be harmless, but its efficacy was not proved so its widespread use in the treatment of the victims was vetoed. Sodium thiosulphate was administered to a few patients, some of whom showed marked improvement, but by the time a controlled trial had been started it was too late to expect any effect from an immediate antidote. Tragedy attracted world attention. /

“For the next few weeks the world's attention focused on Bhopal. Rajiv Gandhi and Mother Teresa came to visit the city, meeting the gas victims in hospital and also in the affected slums around the plant. Newspaper and television reporters arrived from all over the world within a day or two of the tragedy. Everyone was anxious to send back pictures of the carnage in the slum areas, record the death throes of babies in the paediatric wards, and recount the tragic stories of so many left widowed or orphaned by the gas. Some television teams would film patients in the wards, regardless of whether they had been affected by the gas or not. The next few weeks were spent trying to cope with the immediate toxic effects of the methyl isocyanate gas and later to predict the medium and long term complications likely to arise. The most likely problems expected are thought to be respiratory, especially pulmonary fibrosis, though doctors are also anxious to follow up any neurological, ophthalmological, and intellectual sequelae that may emerge. Another fear is the effect of the gas on early pregnancy. Methyl isocyanate exposure was blamed for a marked increase in the rate of premature labour and abortions on the night of the gas leak and in the subsequent few weeks. I had expected the experiences of my elective period to include a range of the usual childhood diseases-polio, tuberculosis, and diphtheria. Instead it was as if I had arrived during the filming of a disaster film-except it was real. /

“Chemicals as well as pollens can cause sensitivity. This has been discussed by the World Health Organisation and its conclusion was that this is a considerable health problem and that we know little about it. Many patients feel "dis-eased," complaining of lethargy, myalgia, aching joints, abdominal symptoms, depression, fluctuating weight, etc. They are often referred to a psychiatrist because no tests show abnormal results. These are obviously a heterogeneous group which we now know contains patients with food allergy, the postviral syndrome, those with chemical sensitivity, and some with primary or secondary psychological problems, or indeed a mixture of all these. The pioneering work of Randolph has delineated a group of these patients who are sensitive to chemicals and gas fumes and when these are removed from their environment improvement can be remarkable. The term "total allergy syndrome" is valueless. These are patients with multiple sensitivities, so called "universal reactors," as described above, who are difficult to treat, and in whom immunological abnormalities have been found.2 Their symptoms are not all in the mind, and in environmental units as seen in the United States many of these patients return to normal health. We know little of what causes this syndrome but environmental factors are clearly important. Much work needs to be done before we have a clear understanding as to what is happening in possibly a considerable proportion of the population.” /

Responsibility for Bhopal Disaster

No one has been held accountable for disaster, been punished or had to go to trial even though two years before the disaster Union Carbide’s own scientists warned of a “serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials”. The company had no system to warn residents in case of an emergency even though the plant was built in a densely populated area and a number of safety measures intended to prevent a disaster had not been observed. Before the disaster safety and maintenance crews were cut at the plant because the pesticide was not selling well because of a drought.

To this day there is sharp disagreement as to what caused the accident. The Indian government claims it was negligence and poor management on the part of Union Carbide. Union Carbide claims it was sabotage by a disgruntled employee. Union Carbide did its best to avoid taking any kind of financial responsibility. One of its first actions was to convince an American judge the the case should be heard in India, where compensation payments are limited and U.S. executives can escape being put on trial.

In 1991, an Indian court ordered Union Carbide executives, including th company’s 1984 CEO Warren Anderson, to face criminal charges. The executives failed to show up and were “proclaimed absconders” (“fugitives of justice”) and filed a claim with the United States for their extradition. The U.S. State department turned down the request in September 2004 but gave no explanation why.

Union Carbide was purchased by Dow Chemical in 2001. In 1999, Union Carbide made a profit of $5.6 billion. The same year its sold its interest in the Bhopal plant, which was closed after the disaster in 1984. Dow claims it had no responsibly for Union Carbide’s past actions.

Little was done to clean up the site. When Union Carbide left it left behind 5,000 tons of chemicals, including puddles of mercury. Studies have shown the drinking water is contaminated.

Bhopal Compensation

Union Carbide paid out a world record $470 million in compensation for the Bhopal disaster. The Supreme Court of India issued a decision on the matter in February 1989. There were 500,000 claimants for 3,350 of the people who died. The state of Maydar Pradesh took responsibility for cleaning up the site. Activists claim that compensation was much less than it should have been. It was based on 3,350 dead not 16,000 to 30,000 that are estimated to have died. The activists also object to the fact that agreement was made between Union Carbide and the government not between the company and the victims.

Much of this money never it found way to the victims because was still tied up in the courts and held by the Indian government while politician argued what should done with the money. As of 2000, a modern hospital funded by Union Carbide had not yet opened. In July 2004, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that $357 million in compensation should be distributed directly to victims and no longer held up in courts.

As off 2005 many of the survivors had still only received about $500 each. Those that had been promised $2,200 received about half that amount after middlemen took their cut. By the time that money arrived most victims had already spent more than that on medical treatments. Many families lost their breadwinners to illness caused by the disaster and had no income coming in.

The Bhopal disaster has been called one of the most glaring cases of a company in the developed country abusing people in the developing world and getting away with it. If the Bhopal disaster had occurred in the United States or another developed country there would be a better chance that the victims would be fairly compensated and the perpetrators brought to justice.

According to Amnesty International: “Union Carbide Corporation has repeatedly refused to face criminal charges of culpable homicide in India. The Dow Chemical Company, which bought UCC in 2001, has shown a similar arrogant disregard for the Indian legal system. The United States government has acted as a safe haven for UCC and Dow, ignoring its responsibility to ensure that US companies are held accountable for human rights abuses elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, the Indian government itself has consistently underestimated the number of people who were killed or injured in the aftermath of the leak, and has also failed to ensure a clean-up of the factory site.”

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated March 2020

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