Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Bhopal, India, 1984

As at Three Mile Island, routine maintenance at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal set in motion a series of events that put at risk thousands of people.  In both instances, the maintenance had to be done carefully because the plants manufactured particularly dangerous toxic materials.   But care was not taken and safety systems at the plant were inadequate to protect the public.

The Bhopal plant had been located in an area with low wages and high unemployment and the pesticides made in Bhopal served to further India’s push for self-sufficient food production.  The intent to advance socioeconomic goals was laudable.  Unfortunately, there was no commensurate oversight of the operations of the plant by governmental authorities.   Once the plant was up and running, socioeconomic goals quickly gave way to self-interested bottom line considerations. Computer operated safety systems, common in Union Carbide plants in the United States, were not installed at this third world facility.  Faulty safety devices allowed water to mix with the dangerous methyl isocyanate (MIC); safety rules were ignored; refrigeration and gas scrubbers equipment were out of service.  Company layoffs left the plant missing critical technical and maintenance staff.  An audit of the plant several years earlier had forewarned of problems, including with the production of MIC.  Without any effective government regulation, the company was free to minimize expenses and cut safety measures.

Once the explosion occurred, there was insufficient warning for the people who lived right next to the plant.  No advice had been given on how to prevent risks from the release of the chemicals, and the buses that were standing by to evacuate residents remained useless.  The impact of the chemical release was immediate and devastating, unlike the more insidious impact from Three Mile Island or even Seveso.  The suffering was palpable, the deaths painful.  The company’s denial that the emission was toxic and its failure to provide information to medical personnel on how to treat the chemical exposures deepened the suffering.  Women had abortions to avoid uncertain, frightening impacts on their unborn.  Families lost their only money earner and were split apart.  Anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress spread though the community just as the toxic gas had.

In the United States, the incident led to the passage of new legislation that required companies to inform communities of chemicals used in plants, required plants to report chemical releases and to provide medical advice in case there were any leaks of releases.  In India, unfortunately, the people of Bhopal are left with little more than the lingering long-term effects from the gas exposure and groundwater contamination.


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