The Incident At Bhopal


The Incident At Bhopal Essay, Research Paper

PURPOSE: To examine the events contributing to the tragedy at Bhopal, India and their repercussions

and to draw conclusions based on these events.

INTRODUCTION: What Happened at Bhopal? Reading newspaper and magazine articles written

immediately following the events at Bhopal, it is apparent that it took some time for authorities to

determine the causes of the industrial accident. Speculation seems to have run wild for a time following

the accident. Drawing from later statistics and information seems to be a more reliable method of

determining the most likely scenario. Where various alternate feasible possibilities have been presented,

we will try to include the most likely.

At approximately midnight on December 3, 1984, an unexpected chemical reaction took place in a

Union Carbide of India Limited storage tank. The storage tank contained methyl isocyanate, (hereafter

referred to as MIC) a toxic gas used in the process of a pesticide called Sevin.(1) As part of the distilling

process there was an extremely high concentration of chloroform present. This caused corrosion of the

tank. The tank being made of iron provided a catalyst for the reaction. A large amount of water was also

introduced, approximately 120-240 gallons, which in combination with the chemical, generated enough

heat to start the reaction. The runaway reaction released an uncontrollable amount of heat and this

resulted in 30-40 tons of the gas being vaporized and spread over approximately 30 square miles, killing

thousands of people and injuring hundreds of thousands.(2)

The lack of information on MIC in 1984 made it a very toxic and difficult to control substance,

according to Meryl H. Karol of the University of Pittsburgh?s Graduate School of Public Health. He

says, ?Although nominally a liquid at room temperature, methyl isocyanate evaporates so quickly from

an open container that it easily turns into a colorless, odorless highly flammable and reactive gas… I

would hesitate having it in a laboratory.? He also quotes the OHSA standard for exposure to MIC during

an eight-hour day as 0.02 parts per million, ?far lower than what many Bhopal residents were exposed


THE HEALTH AFFECTS of exposure to MIC is disastrous. At low levels, MIC causes eyes to water

and results in damage to the cornea. At higher concentrations, muscles constrict, and the bronchial

passages have the equivalent of a severe asthma attack.(3) Most of the deaths in India were due to this.

Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, Assistant Director of Public Health Practice at the Centers for Disease Control in

Atlanta, who went to Bhopal to render assistance, said, ?There was edema, substantial destruction…of

alveolar walls, … a ulcerative bronchiolus…? among patients at the severely crowded hospitals.(4)

Serious damage to the central nervous system after three to four weeks, including paralysis, and

psychological problems have also been a result.(3)

The long-term affects of MIC exposure are equally disastrous. According to the Indian Council of

Medical Research, at least 50,000 people are still suffering and new chronic cases of asthma keep

showing up as the population ages and 39% of the surrounding population have some form of severe

respiratory impairment.(5) Most of them will suffer for the rest of their lives.(6) It is a conservative

estimate that 5 people die every week as a result of the Bhopal accident.(7) Another consideration is that

in a social class that maintains a living through physical labor, inability to perform results in


Affects on women were profound. Out of 198 women living within 10 miles of the facility, 100 had

abnormal uterine bleeding.(1,5) Of the local women who were pregnant before the accident, 43%

miscarried and 14% of the babies carried to term died within a month. Socially, these women are

considered unwanted by potential husbands because reproductive disorders are so commonplace that

they are seen as sterile.(5) It is unknown whether chromosomal damage will affect future generations.(8)

TOTAL EFFECTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT are not yet known. Approximately 1,600 animals died

on the first and second days after the incident. This was a terrible environmental health risk. Eventually

this problem was solved by digging a giant one-acre mass grave. There was also damage to some

vegetation, animal and fish species, but not to others. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research is

studying this.(1)

A VARIETY OF FAILURES were contributing factors in this lethal cloud of chemicals descending on

the helpless, uninformed public. These failures include design failures, maintenance failures, operations

failures, emergency response failures, communications failures, governmental failures and last but not

least management failures.

In 1982, a safety audit by the Union Carbide parent company revealed a number of safety problems. The

conditions that did not measure up were problems with the manual controls of the MIC feed tank,

unreliable gauges and valves, and insufficient training of the operators. The Union Carbide of India

division claimed to have fixed all of these, but management never had auditors go back and confirm.

Another inherent problem is that the storage tanks were too large. They had a capacity of 15,000 gallons.

The smallest amount of water introduced into the system would cause an exothermic reaction such as the

one which occurred, on an extremely large scale, instead of on a smaller scale if the tanks did not have

such a high volume.(1)

The parent company, according to Mr. Jackson Browning, Union Carbide?s Director of Health, Safety

and Environmental Affairs, did not even have detailed plans of the Indian plant, and the design of safety

procedures was left up to local managers.(9)

When the vapor was released, it was released into a highly populated area. The grounds in the immediate

vicinity were completely surrounded by vast numbers of shacks and homemade temporary dwellings,

some of them right up against the fence line.(10) This was perfectly legal. The local government does

not enforce zoning laws. The local government had actually had water and electricity installed in over

80% of these dwellings.(1,13) There was no buffer zone.(11)

The local population was completely uninformed concerning the hazards involved with living so close to

a chemical plant. Had the general population been informed that in case of an accident they should

breathe through a simple wet cloth, thereby preventing any harm from MIC, it is likely fewer deaths and

injuries would have occurred. Instead, once awareness set in, hysteria prevailed, with people running to

get away. Noone knew to cover their faces with a wet cloth. One small piece of information would have

made a great difference. (8)

Another factor to consider is that the Indian government insisted as a term of allowing Union Carbide to

do business there, low qualified natives had to be employed at the facility. Many of them were friends or

relatives of the government officials, instead of the qualified employees who should have been working

there.(12) The local state government had no oversight or regulation of the facility. This was likely due

to lack of technical knowledge and lack of institutional ability to implement environmental control laws.

Union Carbide took advantage of India?s less expensive and laxer safety standards.(12)

The accident may not have occurred had proper maintenance been performed. The failure of the

refrigeration equipment which should have kept the temperature low, so that the MIC did not vaporize,

went completely unnoticed by unskilled maintenance workers.(13) This refrigeration equipment was

supposed to keep the MIC close to 32? F, instead it reached approximately 200? F.(8) It had not been

working for five months.(14) In addition, a labor report shows that the maintenance department used a

jumper line installed for cleaning purposes and that same cleaning water line may have been the source

of the water injected into the MIC storage tank, causing the accident.(15)

The Operations department played a role in the disaster as well. A vent scrubber, which was designed to

neutralize escaping gas was turned off. There was a flare tower, designed to burn off escaping gases. It

was also turned off. Noone has an explanation why.(13)

The lack of emergency response was a contributing factor. The sirens at the facility were turned off.

Noone knows why. The Bhopal community had no emergency plan. When the hospitals flooded with

tens of thousands of seriously ill and dying patients, it was nearly impossible for them to receive medical


RESULTING from the incident at Bhopal is among other things, increased spending on safety and

environmental precautions. In 1984, safety represented 1% of spending. It has now increased to over

4%.(16) It is difficult to estimate whether this represents effective spending, but the increased revenues

devoted to safety certainly cannot hurt. Companies have begun attempting to design plants that are ?idiot

proof? as well as ?vandal proof? and are starting to realize the need for back-up equipment, since they

will be blamed in instances of disaster.(12)

Public opinion is an influencing factor in the U.S., but abroad, it is not very effective in motivating big

companies to change their safety practices. However corporate banking DOES influence international

business. Since the Bhopal incident, banks have begun turning down loans over environmental concerns.

This has to do with concern over liability and monetary loss instead of any humanitarian concern, but it

has the same end result.(16) Companies that show a poor track record in regard to safety do not get to

have the business opportunities that they would otherwise have. The World Bank insists that projects

receiving its loans comply with safety standards. This includes complying with safer processes to replace

more hazardous ones.(13)

In 1985, Dr. Gareth Green of John?s Hopkins University School of Public Health and Hygiene, remarked

to the Journal of the American Medical Association, ?I think we need more knowledge about the

location and quantities of hazardous substances around the country. There needs to be developed plans

for dealing with problems should they occur.?(4) Dr. Green could not have foreseen the future any more

clearly if he were psychic. It took awhile, but in 1992, OSHA enacted the Process Safety Management

Standard. PSM covers such planning.

IT MAY BE CONCLUDED that chemical process plants should be located nowhere near residential

areas, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Strategic site location could have eliminated the occurrence at

Bhopal almost entirely. The United Nations should have an equivalent department serving an

OSHA-like function in third-world countries, with trade sanctions imposed on those who do not comply.

The U.N. has been involved in many less humanitarian ventures recently. Why not something purely

protective in nature? It may also be concluded that the value American chemical companies place on

human life depends largely on where the person lives and the penalties involved when lives are lost.



(1) ?Avoiding Future Bhopals: In the Aftermath of Catastrophe, What Can We Learn From History?s

Worst Industrial Accident?? ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 27, Sept 1985, p. 6-13.

(2)?Environmental Surprise: Expecting the Unexpected.? Kates, William. ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 38,

March 1996, p. 6-7.

(3)?Fallout From a Chemical Catastrophe.? Peterson, Ivar. SCIENCE NEWS, Vol. 126, Dec 15, 1984, p.


(4)?After Coping With Crisis, Medicine Ponders Sequelae.? Marwick, Dr. Charles. JOURNAL OF THE


(5)?Persistently Toxic: The Union Carbide Accident In Bhopal Continues to Harm.? Mukerjee,

Modhusree. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Vol. 272, June 1995, p. 16.

(6)?The Fallout From Bhopal.? Lepkowski, William. SCIENCE DIGEST. Vol. 94, Jan 1986, p. 52.

(7)?Union Carbide Officials Face Prosecution.? Kumar, Sanjay. NEW SCIENTIST, Vol. 138, May 1,

1993, p. 8.

(8)?BHOPAL: 15th Anniversary.?

(9)?Bhopal: The Lesson Sinks In.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 295, June 22, 1985, p. 91.

(10)?Permanent Scars of the Bhopal Catastrophe.? DISCOVER. Vol. 7, April 1986, p. 9.

(11)?What We Can Learn From Bhopal.?Speth, James. ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 27, Jan/Feb 1985, p 15.

(12)?Gassed in Bhopal.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 293, Dec 15, 1984, p. 12-14.

(13)?Poisoned Legacy.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 293, Dec 15, 1984, p. 77-78.

(14)?Union Carbide; Not Us.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 294, March 23, 1985, p. 78-79.

(15)?New Labor Report on Bhopal Plant.? ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 27, Sept. 1985, p. 23.

(16)?Bhopal: Ten Years On.? THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 333, Dec 1994, p. 78-79.

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