The Incident At Bhopal


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
to.?(3)
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
starvation.(8)
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