Toexamine the events contributing to the tragedy at Bhopal, India and theirrepercussions and to draw conclusions based on these events. WhatHappened at Bhopal? Reading newspaper and magazine articles written immediatelyfollowing the events at Bhopal, it is apparent that it took some time forauthorities to determine the causes of the industrial accident. Speculationseems to have run wild for a time following the accident. Drawing from laterstatistics and information seems to be a more reliable method of determining themost likely scenario. Where various alternate feasible possibilities have beenpresented, we will try to include the most likely.
At approximately midnight onDecember 3, 1984, an unexpected chemical reaction took place in a Union Carbideof India Limited storage tank. The storage tank contained methyl isocyanate,(hereafter referred to as MIC) a toxic gas used in the process of a pesticidecalled Sevin.(1) As part of the distilling process there was an extremely highconcentration of chloroform present. This caused corrosion of the tank. The tankbeing made of iron provided a catalyst for the reaction. A large amount of waterwas also introduced, approximately 120-240 gallons, which in combination withthe chemical, generated enough heat to start the reaction. The runaway reactionreleased an uncontrollable amount of heat and this resulted in 30-40 tons of thegas being vaporized and spread over approximately 30 square miles, killingthousands of people and injuring hundreds of thousands.
(2) The lack ofinformation on MIC in 1984 made it a very toxic and difficult to controlsubstance, according to Meryl H. Karol of the University of PittsburghsGraduate School of Public Health. He says, Although nominally a liquid atroom temperature, methyl isocyanate evaporates so quickly from an open containerthat it easily turns into a colorless, odorless highly flammable and reactivegas… I would hesitate having it in a laboratory. He also quotes the OHSAstandard for exposure to MIC during an eight-hour day as 0.02 parts per million,far lower than what many Bhopal residents were exposed to.
(3) THE HEALTHAFFECTS of exposure to MIC is disastrous. At low levels, MIC causes eyes towater and results in damage to the cornea. At higher concentrations, musclesconstrict, and the bronchial passages have the equivalent of a severe asthmaattack.(3) Most of the deaths in India were due to this. Dr. Jeffrey P.
Koplan,Assistant Director of Public Health Practice at the Centers for Disease Controlin Atlanta, who went to Bhopal to render assistance, said, There was edema,substantial destruction…of alveolar walls, … a ulcerative bronchiolus..
.among patients at the severely crowded hospitals.(4) Serious damage to thecentral nervous system after three to four weeks, including paralysis, andpsychological problems have also been a result.(3) The long-term affects of MICexposure are equally disastrous. According to the Indian Council of MedicalResearch, at least 50,000 people are still suffering and new chronic cases ofasthma keep showing up as the population ages and 39% of the surroundingpopulation have some form of severe respiratory impairment.
(5) Most of them willsuffer for the rest of their lives.(6) It is a conservative estimate that 5people die every week as a result of the Bhopal accident.(7) Anotherconsideration is that in a social class that maintains a living through physicallabor, inability to perform results in starvation.(8) Affects on women wereprofound. Out of 198 women living within 10 miles of the facility, 100 hadabnormal uterine bleeding.(1,5) Of the local women who were pregnant before theaccident, 43% miscarried and 14% of the babies carried to term died within amonth. Socially, these women are considered unwanted by potential husbandsbecause reproductive disorders are so commonplace that they are seen assterile.
(5) It is unknown whether chromosomal damage will affect futuregenerations.(8) TOTAL EFFECTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT are not yet known.Approximately 1,600 animals died on the first and second days after theincident. This was a terrible environmental health risk. Eventually this problemwas solved by digging a giant one-acre mass grave. There was also damage to somevegetation, animal and fish species, but not to others. The Indian Council ofAgricultural Research is studying this.(1) A VARIETY OF FAILURES werecontributing factors in this lethal cloud of chemicals descending on thehelpless, uninformed public.
These failures include design failures, maintenancefailures, operations failures, emergency response failures, communicationsfailures, governmental failures and last but not least management failures. In1982, a safety audit by the Union Carbide parent company revealed a number ofsafety problems. The conditions that did not measure up were problems with themanual controls of the MIC feed tank, unreliable gauges and valves, andinsufficient training of the operators. The Union Carbide of India divisionclaimed to have fixed all of these, but management never had auditors go backand confirm.
Another inherent problem is that the storage tanks were too large.They had a capacity of 15,000 gallons. The smallest amount of water introducedinto the system would cause an exothermic reaction such as the one whichoccurred, on an extremely large scale, instead of on a smaller scale if thetanks did not have such a high volume.(1) The parent company, according to Mr.Jackson Browning, Union Carbides Director of Health, Safety and EnvironmentalAffairs, did not even have detailed plans of the Indian plant, and the design ofsafety procedures was left up to local managers.(9) When the vapor was released,it was released into a highly populated area. The grounds in the immediatevicinity were completely surrounded by vast numbers of shacks and homemadetemporary dwellings, some of them right up against the fence line.(10) This wasperfectly legal.
The local government does not enforce zoning laws. The localgovernment had actually had water and electricity installed in over 80% of thesedwellings.(1,13) There was no buffer zone.(11) The local population wascompletely uninformed concerning the hazards involved with living so close to achemical plant. Had the general population been informed that in case of anaccident they should breathe through a simple wet cloth, thereby preventing anyharm from MIC, it is likely fewer deaths and injuries would have occurred.
Instead, once awareness set in, hysteria prevailed, with people running to getaway. Noone knew to cover their faces with a wet cloth. One small piece ofinformation would have made a great difference.
(8) Another factor to consideris that the Indian government insisted as a term of allowing Union Carbide to dobusiness there, low qualified natives had to be employed at the facility. Manyof them were friends or relatives of the government officials, instead of thequalified employees who should have been working there.(12) The local stategovernment had no oversight or regulation of the facility.
This was likely dueto lack of technical knowledge and lack of institutional ability to implementenvironmental control laws. Union Carbide took advantage of Indias lessexpensive and laxer safety standards.(12) The accident may not have occurred hadproper maintenance been performed. The failure of the refrigeration equipmentwhich should have kept the temperature low, so that the MIC did not vaporize,went completely unnoticed by unskilled maintenance workers.(13) Thisrefrigeration equipment was supposed to keep the MIC close to 32 F, instead itreached approximately 200 F.(8) It had not been working for five months.(14)In addition, a labor report shows that the maintenance department used a jumperline installed for cleaning purposes and that same cleaning water line may havebeen the source of the water injected into the MIC storage tank, causing theaccident.(15) The Operations department played a role in the disaster as well.
Avent scrubber, which was designed to neutralize escaping gas was turned off.There was a flare tower, designed to burn off escaping gases. It was also turnedoff.
Noone has an explanation why.(13) The lack of emergency response was acontributing factor. The sirens at the facility were turned off. Noone knowswhy. The Bhopal community had no emergency plan.
When the hospitals flooded withtens of thousands of seriously ill and dying patients, it was nearly impossiblefor them to receive medical care.(4) RESULTING from the incident at Bhopal isamong other things, increased spending on safety and environmental precautions.In 1984, safety represented 1% of spending. It has now increased to over 4%.
(16)It is difficult to estimate whether this represents effective spending, but theincreased revenues devoted to safety certainly cannot hurt. Companies have begunattempting to design plants that are idiot proof as well as vandalproof and are starting to realize the need for back-up equipment, since theywill be blamed in instances of disaster.(12) Public opinion is an influencingfactor in the U.S., but abroad, it is not very effective in motivating bigcompanies to change their safety practices. However corporate banking DOESinfluence international business.
Since the Bhopal incident, banks have begunturning down loans over environmental concerns. This has to do with concern overliability and monetary loss instead of any humanitarian concern, but it has thesame end result.(16) Companies that show a poor track record in regard to safetydo not get to have the business opportunities that they would otherwise have.The World Bank insists that projects receiving its loans comply with safetystandards. This includes complying with safer processes to replace morehazardous ones.
(13) In 1985, Dr. Gareth Green of Johns Hopkins UniversitySchool of Public Health and Hygiene, remarked to the Journal of the AmericanMedical Association, I think we need more knowledge about the location andquantities of hazardous substances around the country. There needs to bedeveloped plans for dealing with problems should they occur.
(4) Dr. Greencould not have foreseen the future any more clearly if he were psychic. It tookawhile, but in 1992, OSHA enacted the Process Safety Management Standard. PSMcovers such planning. IT MAY BE CONCLUDED that chemical process plants should belocated nowhere near residential areas, whether in the U.S. or abroad.
Strategicsite location could have eliminated the occurrence at Bhopal almost entirely.The United Nations should have an equivalent department serving an OSHA-likefunction in third-world countries, with trade sanctions imposed on those who donot comply. The U.N.
has been involved in many less humanitarian venturesrecently. Why not something purely protective in nature? It may also beconcluded that the value American chemical companies place on human life dependslargely on where the person lives and the penalties involved when lives arelost.BibliographyAvoiding Future Bhopals: In the Aftermath of Catastrophe, What Can We LearnFrom Historys Worst Industrial Accident? ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 27, Sept 1985,p. 6-13.
(2)Environmental Surprise: Expecting the Unexpected. Kates,William. ENVIRONMENT, Vol. 38, March 1996, p. 6-7. (3)Fallout From a ChemicalCatastrophe.
Peterson, Ivar. SCIENCE NEWS, Vol. 126, Dec 15, 1984, p.
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SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Vol. 272, June 1995, p. 16.(6)The Fallout From Bhopal. Lepkowski, William. SCIENCE DIGEST.
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(14)Union Carbide; Not Us. THE ECONOMIST, Vol. 294, March 23, 1985, p.78-79. (15)New Labor Report on Bhopal Plant.
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