11 November 2009

Bhopal: when bad stuff happens to good people

There are days when my job is a little depressing. I have been researching industrial disasters for “ammunition” in training courses, as I like to have video clips I can show trainees to highlight why health and safety is really important. I regularly use footage of the Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform disaster to help them think about the fact that accidents don’t just happen – they have causes, and usually many small things contribute to create an accident situation. Today I’m trying to find footage of the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984.

Bhopal in India was the site of a Union Carbide factory manufacturing a pesticide known as “sevin”. To do this, they used a number of precursor chemicals including methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic, highly reactive chemical. On the night of 3 December 1984, there was a major leak from one of the MIC storage tanks that drifted over the town of Bhopal, killing at least 3,000 people (we don’t actually know how many died as the records are both very scanty and disputed, particularly by Union Carbide – the initial toll could have been as high as 10-15,000) with tens of thousands more dying or severely affected over the following days and weeks. Survivors have ongoing health issues including blindness, reproductive issues, respiratory diseases, kidney failure etc and it has been estimated that perhaps 300,000 people have died due to gas-induced illnesses in the 25 years since the disaster.

Causes of the disaster are disputed, but it seems clear that Union Carbide had cut the safety backup systems that prevented chemical leaks from 4 down to 1, and most of the plant was in very poor condition. Staff weren’t trained, plant was not maintained, instruction manuals were in English rather than the local Indian dialect, and so on. Union Carbide has never accepted culpability. Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemicals, and Union Carbide India by Eveready. The site has never been cleaned up and there is still toxic leakage to this day. It is the 25th anniversary of the disaster this year.

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