The Bhopal Disaster: The Worst Industrial Accident of All Time

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A Brief History

On December 3, 1984, the terrible tragedy at Bhopal, India took place when a huge quantity of methyl isocyanate (MIC) escaped and exposed 500,000 people to this poison and other chemicals, over 2,200 of whom died immediately and perhaps 16,000 more deaths over the ensuing weeks.

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper we find the table set for disaster at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant built in 1969 to produce the pesticide “Sevin” and later the pesticide MIC when numerous leaks and other safety violations took place leading up to the disaster. Ignoring normal safety practices and failing to heed local authorities warnings, the plant continued to produce more MIC than needed, causing the need to store massive quantities of the highly toxic chemical.  The safety systems in place were not maintained, either, helping to ensure the maximum lethality when a disaster occurred.  Amazingly, considering the highly toxic nature of the products at this plant, safety and maintenance manuals were in English when most of the workers did not read the language.  Training was also deficient and the general attitude about safety was stunningly lax.

Water invading a huge storage tank of MIC triggered an exothermic reaction with the chemical and corroded metal fixtures, resulting in the massive release of the toxic gas cloud.  Happening over night, most victims were unaware of the leak as they were sleeping and nobody sounded an alarm.  How the water entered the storage tank is not clearly known and is debated, just as whether or not cyanide gas was one of the chemicals released with the MIC and others.  Regardless, over a half million casualties and thousands of deaths later, this disaster dwarfs any other industrial accident.

Along with strong anti-American feelings (UCIL was a subsidiary of the American company Union Carbide Corporation) criminal and civil proceedings also resulted and numerous studies of the incident have been made.  The criminal investigation resulted in only 8 former UCIL employees being convicted, with penalties of 2 years in jail and $2000 fine apiece, and this did not happen until 2010!  One of them died prior to sentencing.  Other Union Carbide officials were charged with manslaughter by the Indian government, but refused to return to India to face the charges.  The civil cases still drag on despite an agreement for UCC to provide $470 million , as does debate over the long term damage to persons and the vast area affected by the spill.

This massive disaster is a record we hope is never broken.  Of course, if Union Carbide officials are correct, the water entering the storage facility that triggered the event cold not have accumulated by accident, meaning this incident was actually a terrorist event purposely caused by one or more disgruntled employees.  As with much of this chaotic debacle, no one in authority can really state with any certainty why it happened.

Historical Evidence

For more information on this tragedy, please see the following sources:

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.

  • Jake Woolf

    Well, this is the first I’ve read of this. MORE RESEARCH NEEDED!

  • Kayla L

    I think some investigation needs to take place regarding the release of the MIC toxins, since no one seems to be certain about whether there was cyanide in the pesticides or not. Even without cyanide, MIC sounds very dangerous since it’s obvious that a large sum of people were killed from it. It surprises me that Americans are responsible for this crime and it counts as a “terrorist attack”. Perhaps the UCIL company should be shut down, or would that be too detrimental to international businesses at large? At any rate, the 8 American employees got what they deserve, but I don’t believe that Indian civilians should harbor resentment towards all Americans. At least, I hope that doesn’t translate to a desire to “kill all the Americans” the way some North Koreans think. I wonder about India’s perception of America as a whole, be it the government and the people. India is rumored to go to war with China, though there are no actual war conflicts, just tensions. Does anyone think that World War III may possibly be around the corner?

  • HLM

    Based on the article above, it seems to me that this incident could’ve been prevented and the lack of precaution and training was a huge problem.

  • Connor Jamison

    When it comes to dealing with dangerous chemicals such as MIC pesticides, those within the company need to take the proper precautions when it comes to managing a plant like this. The worst mistake made here was the location. Why would any company ever put a pesticides plant with toxic chemicals next to a highly dense community. This whole situation could have easily been avoided if it were not for the carelessness of the individuals who chose to put the plant in that location.

  • Gabriel M

    The prison lengths are to small, should be longer.

  • E DiPasquale

    I am curious as to how the water invaded the water tank. I am also curious as to why the facilities were not properly maintained in order to prevent something like this from happening. Toxic chemicals such as this one absolutely need to be kept safe so that these types of situations don’t happen. The number of deaths that resulted from this accident are outrageous. It is a very unfortunate situation that clearly took a long time to resolve.

  • Jack C

    I hope something like this never happens again. Toxic Chemicals i think are overlooked on deathly they can be. I think the prison lengths should of been longer.

  • Donny G

    Disasters like this should never happen in this day in age. We have the resources and tools to prevent accidents like this from happening. It is sickening to see how many people were affected to quickly and they had no choice but to suffer.

  • cwank

    It’s really terrible to see that barely anyone was convicted for this. There is no closure for the family and friends of the victims. It is also amazing to see the ignorance displayed when it comes to such toxic chemicals and safety measures.

  • RJ

    Greed is one variable that might lead to such disasters. Greed will always invent new ways to generate revenue and certain means are detrimental to the Earth and all of Earth’s inhabitants.