It was 20 years ago today that women, men and children in the city of Bhopal, India, awoke to screams in the street as a deadly fog swept through the area, killing many in their sleep and burning the lungs, eyes and skin of those who fled to the streets.
The worst chemical disaster in history, the legacy of the toxic methyl isocyanate leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in India continues to have an impact.
At least 3,000 people died on the night of the leak, reports the BBC, with a reported 15,000 related deaths following. Advocacy and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have recently suggested that the immediate deaths were closer to 7,000, with 150,000 suffering "cancer, infertility, birth defects, mental illness and other problems," reports the Star Tribune.
Forty tons of gas seeped into the air, a result of what toxicologist Dr. Gerald Poje, in a report by Kristen Hays of Newsday, calls "a string of system breakdowns at the Union Carbide Plant." The gas poured into the city, killing some instantly and resulting in a rush of people staggering into the street, the tissues of their eyes burned and their lungs filling with fluid, some vomiting and suffocating as their bronchial tubes collapsed. Pregnant women lost their unborn children as the toxins resulted in spontaneous abortions, reported the Bhopal Medical appeal in 1994. Still more victims were crushed in the stampede of frightened people and animals rushing to flee the gas. "Many were later found, huddled, sick and dying in the city's doorways," reports the BBC. Of these surviving sufferers, many were found to have "acute eye and breathing problems, and kidney and liver failure. Many pregnant women had to be given abortions," continues the BBC report.
Union Carbide faced legal action, eventually settling with the government of India on $470 million as compensation to victims ($345 million of which has been held by the government until recently), which resulted in each victim receiving around $550. Today, victims and advocacy groups are claiming that this is not nearly enough for those suffering from lingering illnesses and lesions to pay medical bills, and indeed it does not even take into account those who continue to be diagnosed as suffering from ongoing effects of the decaying plant.
While Union Carbide claimed that it was a disgruntled, anonymous saboteur who caused the disaster, environmental groups, the Indian government and researchers blame faulty (or disabled) safety practices at the plant and a warning siren that was turned off. Today, Union Carbide and its parent company, Dow, state, "The company is no longer responsible," according to Newsday. The company also refused to release information on the gas that leaked, making it difficult for doctors to treat victims.
This shirking of responsibility has resulted in a failure of the plant to receive adequate cleanup, many involved argue. "Two decades later, residents say, a second poisonous onslaught brews underground," reports Mike McPhate of The Washington Times, as rainwater from monsoons washes chemicals from the defunct plant into the city's drinking water. "Several studies have shown the neighborhood's water to contain a cocktail of poisons such as lead, mercury and organic compounds known to attack the liver, kidney and nervous system," continues McPhate.
Union Carbide relies on studies done by the government of Madhya Pradesh (the district where Bhopal is located) that stated the water was acceptable, although the company's own consulting firm warns that the tests were not comprehensive and the water may not be safe to drink, according to McPhate.
This known, many are appalled by the lack of responsibility the company is taking for environmental cleanup.
As the 20th anniversary of the horrible disaster rolls around, and indeed as the world recognizes the Global Day of Action for Justice in Bhopal on Dec. 3, it is time for the Dow chemical company to take responsibility for the disaster and for its officials to be held accountable. As Greenpeace and Amnesty International suggest, it is time for Dow to "clean up the factory site at its expense," secure long-term treatment for victims, ensure adequate compensation for victims, provide clean water to near by communities and also allow for court charges to proceed against its officials. These things are necessary to ensure for adequate justice for those who suffered from the disaster, as well as provide a healthy future for those still affected by the horrific event.
Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her columns run on Fridays in the Collegian.