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 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.
Question for students (and subscribers): Why do you think this disaster happened? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information on this tragedy, please see the following sources:
D’Silva, Themistocles. The Black Box of Bhopal: A Closer Look at the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster. Trafford Publishing, 2006.
Lapierre, Dominique and Javier Moro. Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster. Grand Central Publishing, 2002.