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What Was the Bhopal Disaster of 1984?

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Bhopal disaster victims in India, living on contaminated land near the Union Carbide plant.

Sangita Kumar applies antibiotic cream to her 15-year-old son's open wounds. They live near the abandoned Union Carbide plant that leaked deadly gas in Bhopal, India in 1984.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images
Question: What Was the Bhopal Disaster of 1984?
Answer:

The Bhopal Disaster was a major gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. Over the night of December 2 and early morning of December 3, 1984, toxic chemicals leaked from the plant, exposing over 600,000 people to deadly gases. An estimated 3,500 to 8,000 people died immediately, and 15,000 to 20,000 have died from health problems associated with the poison gas in the two decades following the disaster.

Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal was built in 1969; its mission was to produce pesticides locally and cheaply in order to boost food production in Madhya Pradesh. However, the plant turned out to be less profitable than Union Carbide had hoped, and by 1984, the company had essentially stopped performing maintenance. To increase profits, Union Carbide began to manufacture the cheaper and much more toxic chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) in the aging, rusting chemical plant.

The night of December 2, while the people in the neighboring shanty town and the city of Bhopal were sleeping, water seeped into a tank containing forty tons of MIC, setting off a chemical reaction. Union Carbide would later blame saboteurs, but in all likelihood it was the company's lack of maintenance that allowed the water to leak into the tank. The storage tank heated up, and twenty-six tons of MIC turned to gas and escaped into the sleeping city.

As a dense, poisonous cloud rolled out of the Union Carbide plant, the wind carried it to nearby Bhopal city. Children and the elderly died within a few minutes in their beds, gasping in the toxic air. Thousands of panicked people rushed out into the streets, trampling one another as they choked on the fumes, but nobody knew which direction to run. The MIC seared people's lungs and eyes, blinding many permanently.

No-one knows for certain how many people died agonizing deaths that night and in the following week. Estimates range from about 3,500 (the official number) to as many as 8,000. Longer-term effects included kidney and liver failure, cancer, spontaneous abortions and fetal death, and serious birth defects.

The Bhopal Disaster has gone down in history as one of the worst industrial accidents of all time. It is also a landmark instance of environmental injustice - a major international corporation, Union Carbide, cared so little for the lives and safety of the mostly impoverished people living near the plant that it abandoned its duty of maintenance, even as it produced ever more-toxic chemicals.

In the aftermath of the Bhopal Disaster, in 1989 Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary agreed out of court to pay $470 million US in damages to the Indian government. The families of those killed by the gas leak received about $2,200 US each in compensation. Activists and the local government in Bhopal called for the extradition of Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson. The United States in 1993 refused to extradite Anderson to face manslaughter charges in India, however.

The site of the Union Carbide plant was heavily contaminated even before the gas leak, and the chemical company has abandoned the site and turned it over to the local government's management. A 1999 Greenpeace testing series reported that the soil and groundwater in the area were seriously contaminated with a number of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, including volatile organic compounds, mercury, and lead. Locally grown vegetables and breast-milk from mothers living nearby were unsafe for human consumption.

In 2012, the WikiLeaks organization released documents revealing that Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, hired the Stratfor security contracting company to spy on Bhopal activists. Nonetheless, the victims of the Bhopal Disaster of 1984 remain a cause celeb amongst local and international NGOs.

For more about the Bhopal Disaster, see "1984 - Huge Poison Gas Leak in Bhopal, India" by Jennifer Rosenberg, About.com Guide to 20th Century History, and "The Bhopal Disaster: What Have We Learned from the 1984 Bhopal Tragedy?" by Marc Lallanilla, About.com Guide to Green Living.

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