Friday, December 4, 2009

Bhopal’s Toxic Legacy

After becoming synonymous with the corporate world’s callous disregard to environmental and social responsibility, will the victims of the Bhopal tragedy ever get just compensation?

By: Ringo Bones

A quarter of a century has passed since that tragic industrial accident in Bhopal, India back in December 3, 1984, and yet no one has been successfully prosecuted since then. Instead, Union Carbide had managed to conveniently blame the local rank-and-file of their pesticide plant for the tragedy. With the toxic legacy of that tragedy from 25 years ago still posing a health threat to the local inhabitants, will the victims of the Bhopal tragedy ever get the just compensation that they truly deserve?

The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India has been set up mainly to produce the pesticide Sevin in which India being mainly an agricultural country has a high demand for the product. Unfortunately, the two main chemical precursors of the pesticide Sevin – phosgene gas and methyl isocyanate or MIC – can be very deadly to humans when released in the atmosphere – especially in very large industrial quantities.

As a widely used chemical weapon during World War I that makes people drown in their own mucus on dry land, the safety staff of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal paid special attention to the safe handling of the phosgene gas during the manufacture of the pesticide Sevin. Though methyl isocyanate can kill humans by interfering with the oxygen-transporting properties of hemoglobin, the safety staff assumed that methyl isocyanate is not as toxic as phosgene gas on a gram-by-gram basis, so they placed a lesser importance on its handling safety in comparison to phosgene. Or is it because phosgene has a more familiar smell akin to a combination of newly mown grass and crushed green tomatoes while no one – prior to the tragedy of Bhopal back in 1984 – knows what methyl isocyanate smells like?

Unfortunately, during the night of that fateful accident, the attending personnel had underestimated the volatility of the methyl isocyanate that are being stored in very large quantities in designated storage tanks. After a mishap with the MIC tanks cooling water system, the volatile chemical created so much pressure that it ruptured the safety valves of their storage tanks. Resulting in the release of 40,000 tons of methyl isocyanate gas windward to the sleeping residents of Bhopal. Thus initiating the most tragic industrial accident in history.

Twenty-five years later, 100,000 inhabitants of Bhopal still experience chronic health problems that resulted from the December 3, 1984 accident. Not to mention a generation of children born with genetic disorders due to their parent’s exposure to methyl isocyanate gas. Even the groundwater of Bhopal has been contaminated with carbon tetrachloride from the abandoned Union Carbide chemical plant at concentrations 1,000 times the allowable limit set by the World Health Organization. Even the cow and breast-milk analysis in Bhopal show carcinogen and teratogen levels higher than that compared to other industrial sites elsewhere in the world. Despite of environmental groups like Greenpeace pressuring the Union Carbide Corporation for just compensation for the industrial accident victims of Bhopal, it seems that the victims of history’s most tragic industrial accident has denied justice yet again. Not to mention the on-going environmental degradation that is still imperceptibly claiming victims.

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