What happened in Bhopal in 1984?
BBC report on the Bhopal gas disaster on the 25th anniversary
Just after midnight on December 2-3 1984, a Union Carbide pesticides plant in Bhopal, India, leaked toxic gas into the air. None of the safety systems were working at the plant, and so 27 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) were released, spreading throughout the city. People awoke to the feeling that their eyes were being burned with chilies, and they ran for their lives. Many died as they ran.
Survivor Champa Devi Shukla, remembers:
“It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes had tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing or even if they were wearing nothing at all. Somebody was running this way and somebody was running that way, some people were just running in their underclothes. People were only concerned as to how they would save their lives so they just ran.”
Union Carbide would not tell anyone which chemicals were in the toxic cocktail released, and so doctors did not know how best to treat the victims. 7-10,000 people died from the gas in the first 72 hours.
Over half a million people were exposed to the gas, and now more than 25,000 have died as a result of this exposure. This tragedy is ongoing, as the next generations are also ill. The accident and the pollution at the Union Carbide site have caused more than 120,000 people to be chronically ill. Children are ten times more likely to be born with birth defects in Bhopal now than elsewhere in India.
How did this happen?
The factory was constructed using untested technology. This in itself may have made it dangerous enough. But cutbacks made to save money made the plant even more hazardous.
Even though the plant had stopped active production of pesticides in the early 1980s, large quantities of dangerous chemicals remained. The safety systems at the site were allowed to fall into disrepair, and every system that had been installed to prevent a gas leak was no longer working. To save around $70 a day, the cooling system which kept the MIC at a safe temperature had been switched off.
An employee flushed water through the system as part of standard maintenance, but a pipe had been badly corroded, and the water flowed freely into the largest of the MIC tanks. Water and MIC should never mix in this way. The safety systems were not working, so no alarm was raised and a deadly chemical reaction occurred that ruptured the tank. This leak released tonnes of MIC and other chemicals into the air in a vast cloud that settled over much of Bhopal, spreading through the city and poisoning its inhabitants.