In this lesson, explore one of the worst industrial disasters in history, a terrible gas leak that took place in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Learn about the profound effects of the disaster on human life and the environment, too.

Union Carbide India Limited

In the late 1960s, the Union Carbide India Limited factory was built in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India to make chemical pesticides. These pesticides were made with a variety of dangerous chemicals, most importantly one called methyl isocyanate. This wasn’t unusual, most pesticide plants work with dangerous chemicals, but unions started complaining that the factory wasn’t up to safety standards as early as 1976. Many factories during this time were built hastily and with little government oversight, so shoddy construction did occur. In 1982, two separate incidents of gas leaks sent about three dozen workers to the hospital. More leaks were reported in 1983 and early 1984.

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The Disaster

On the night of December 2, 1984, disaster struck. Due to faulty safety mechanisms, water accidentally entered a pipe and poured into a giant tank of methyl isocyanate. This started a chemical reaction that turned the chemical into gas, which built up pressure and eventually burst out of the factory. Over the next 45 minutes, somewhere between 30 and 45 tons of toxic gas entered the air.

Gasses like this are heavier than the atmosphere, so rather than dissipating high in the sky, they formed a dense cloud of noxious fumes at ground level and caught the winds heading straight for Bhopal. As the cloud of gas hit the town, people woke from their sleep choking, gasping, and vomiting. Many were immediately affected, their skin burning and lungs failing. Those who survived the initial wave tried to flee, causing a massive panic in the densely packed town.

By the morning of December 3, thousands were dead. The official counts ranged from 2,259 to 3,787 dead, although local workers who collected bodies claimed that there were upwards of 15,000 victims. The government sent relief workers to Bhopal, but it became quickly apparent that they were unprepared to deal with a catastrophe of this scale.

Environmental and Physical Effects

So, what made this gas so deadly? Officially, most of the victims of the Bhopal tragedy died from suffocation. The gas was so heavy and thick that it filled their lungs, essentially drowning them. However, methyl isocyanate also reacts strongly with organic tissues, and many victims suffered severe chemical burns to eyes and skin.

Unfortunately, the impacts were not limited to just that night. Researchers estimate that 500,000 to 600,000 people were impacted by the chemical gas, most of whom suffered long-term illnesses. Few studies have been done on the effects of methyl isocyanate, but researchers suggest that this chemical can lead to numerous chronic diseases as well as higher rates of spontaneous abortion and birth defects. It’s worth noting that the rates of stillborn babies in the region rose by 300% following the disaster, and the rates of neonatal mortality rose by 200%.

Apart from the human toll, we also can’t ignore the environmental impacts of the disaster. Over 2,000 animals were killed by the gas that night, most of them livestock that people relied on for food. The heavy gas was absorbed into local rivers, making the water undrinkable and poisoning the fish. Many crops were also deemed unsafe for human consumption, and the entire region went into crisis due to food shortage.

Even worse, the site was never properly cleaned by either Union Carbide or the Indian government. Researchers estimate that more than 400 tons of poisonous chemicals are still buried there, leaking into groundwater and soils. In 2004, the Indian Supreme Court ordered Madhya Pradesh to provide clean drinking water to Bhopal, as the local groundwater was still deemed unsafe.

Aftermath

India immediately started going after Union Carbide, the American company that owned the plant. While the company claimed that the disaster was a result of sabotage, India claimed that Union Carbide had cut corners and ignored safety regulations. It wasn’t until 1989 that Union Carbide paid any form of compensation to the victims. People with lifetime medical conditions from the disaster were given enough money for about 3-5 years of medical treatment, leaving many feeling horribly mistreated.

Legal issues with the disaster are ongoing. The government in Bhopal charged the CEO of United Carbide, Warren Anderson, with ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder,’ but neither Anderson or his company have ever appeared in Indian courts.

As recently as 2014, health problems in Bhopal are being attributed to the continued presence of toxic chemicals, and squabbling continues over who is to blame. Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical Company, which claims that it isn’t responsible for Union Carbide’s mistakes, while local governments continually prove unable to handle to ongoing issues. So, who’s to blame? Is it the government that fails to regulate industry and tends to neglect impoverished neighborhoods? Or is the blame with foreign corporations who take advantage of cheap labor in India to produce harmful chemicals far from their own shores? Industrial disasters like Bhopal show that there is much more at stake here than just the economy.

Lesson Summary

On the night of December 2 and morning of December 3 in 1984, the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide factory in Bhopal started leaking hundreds of tons of poisonous gas into the air. The leak, a result of faulty safety mechanisms and a shoddily built factory, created a dense cloud of toxic fumes that drifted into Bhopal. At least 3,000 people died that night, with hundreds of thousands being impacted for years to come. There were also numerous environmental impacts, including destruction of food resources across the region.

The Indian government and Union Carbide squabbled over who was to blame, and relief was inadequate. The site was never cleaned properly, Union Carbide was never held accountable, and victims were poorly compensated, resulting in protests to this day. It was one of the worst industrial disasters in history, and it revealed that there was so much more wrong than just a few faulty machines.