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Twenty Years after Bhopal

Compensation still sought for victims as investigation of accident continues

December 6, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 49


On the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal, India, chemical accident, some people marked the largest ever industrial disaster with a conference to examine ways to prevent the recurrence of a major chemical accident. Other people marked the occasion with vigils and protests and called for compensation for surviving victims.

On Dec. 3, 1984, a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas emanated from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, killing thousands of people. Investigators determined that 4 tons of MIC, used to manufacture the pesticide carbaryl, vaporized and enveloped half of Bhopal, at the time a city of 800,000.

Union Carbide, which was purchased by Dow Chemical in 2001, blames the accident on an unknown saboteur. In 1989, Carbide paid a $470 million court settlement to compensate victims. The firm has also spent $5 million on relief efforts, $2 million to remediate the site, and has funded a $90 million hospital.

But many say the firm has not done enough. Late last month, Amnesty International released a report urging people around the world to pressure Dow Chemical and the Indian government, and demanding that the plant site be cleaned up and the affected communities compensated. Further, Amnesty International calls for global standards, based on United Nations norms for business, to guarantee redress for those hurt by company wrongdoing.

At a conference on Dec. 1–3 at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India, international experts on process safety discussed the tragedy with local chemical engineers, witnesses of the accident, and top Indian health experts. Attendees noted that there is no reliable count of the people killed. Doctors in Bhopal insist that the number of dead is at least 10,000.

The exact number of people injured, which conference attendees conservatively estimated in the tens of thousands, is another mystery. This is partly because physicians cannot always differentiate between those afflicted by a respiratory ailment known as Bhopal syndrome and those with respiratory disease from other sources. One difficulty in defining Bhopal syndrome is that the exact composition of the toxic gas is not known. Heat may have turned MIC that was stored in large quantity at the site into cyanide, but the evidence is inconclusive.

Also at the conference, Carolyn W. Merritt, of the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board, said that although it is unpleasant to do, it is appropriate to look at Bhopal and ask what would happen if such an accident should occur in the U.S., especially as a result of a criminal act.



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