The Union Carbide Gas Disaster in Bhopal, India
On December 3, 1984 the residents of a Bhopal, India awoke to a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas that had been discharged from the near-by Union Carbida India Limited plant. The deadly cloud infiltrated hundreds of shanties and huts as it slowly drifted in the cool night awaking sleeping residents to coughing, choking, and stinging eyes. By dawn the cloud had cleared and many were dead or injured.
Reports of the incident were slow to reach America. Union Carbide, a U.S. corporation that owns 51% of the plant, based in Danbury Connecticut, was in the dark for many days. Union Carbide made front page across the country for months and is still considered the worst industrial disaster in the history of the planet. The official Indian government panel charged with tabulating deaths and injuries updated the count to more than 3,800 dead and approximately 11,000 with disabilities (Browning, 1).
The chemical that was released, methyl isocyanate (MIC), is an ester of isocyanic acid (HNCO). It is highly volatile and inflammable and is easily produced and stored at room temperature. MIC, with phosgene as one of the substances used to manufacture it, creates immediate irritation, chest pain, breathlessness, and can trigger severe asthma. If the exposure is high, as in Bhopal, it leads to severe bacterial and oesinophihc pneumonia, tumour or laryngeal edema and massive cardiac arrest. The real problem, however, is that it sensitizes the skin and even a mild exposure proves lethal (www.ecoindia.com).
Union Carbide, reporting sales of $9.5 billion in 1984, was clearly one of the largest industrial companies in the Unites States and the World. They produced everything from plastic wraps to automotive supplies. The Bhopal plant produced pesticides, mainly to be used in India in its pursuit to be more self-sufficient. Union Carbida India Limited (UCIL) was celebrating its 50th anniversary and had sales of about $200 million annually. It operated 14 plants and had 9,000 employees. In 1984, the entire workforce at the plant in Bhopal was Indian and MIC had been being produced at the site since the 1970's.
Many different reports of what happened at the plant that caused the release of the gas have been offered, but none proven. Union Carbide offered in late 1986, with the absence of proven theory on how the gas was released was that the leak was a result of sabotage. This has been highly discredited by most for the convenience, lack of evidence, motive, or ability to perform such a feat. The much more highly recognized theory, as described by Ward Morehouse and M. Arun Subramaniam in A Report for the Citizens Commission on Bhopal entitled The Bhopal Tragedy: What Really Happened and What It Means for American Workers and Communities at Risk. They describe a thorough and technical series of safety violations, and safety devices that were not operational that caused...