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From the archives: The 1980s

C&EN Reports on Bhopal

by Alexander H. Tullo
September 18, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 31


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No single event in the chemical industry’s history was as tragic and consequential as the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India. During the night of Dec. 2–3, a storage tank at a Union Carbide India plant leaked about 40 metric tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a pesticide intermediate. The toxic cloud wafted over nearby towns, exposing hundreds of thousands of people. In the immediate aftermath, at least 3,800 people died. C&EN published its news story about the disaster on Dec. 10. The death toll when the article was written the week before stood at about 2,000. Because C&EN had no correspondents in India, the story had to draw from New York Times and Associated Press reports. C&EN’s coverage, as one might expect, details MIC’s chemical properties and hazards, such as its propensity to cause “severe bronchospasm and asthmatic breathing when inhaled.” In an editorial that appeared in the Dec. 10 issue and was likely written just a few days after the incident, C&EN editor Michael Heylin is prescient about the ramifications. “Whatever the exact causes of this disaster turn out to be, Bhopal is not just Union Carbide’s problem. It is likely, indeed proper, that issues concerning chemical operations in general will be raised,” he writes. They were. The disaster led just a year later to Responsible Care, a set of standards adopted by the chemical industry for manufacturing, handling, and transporting chemicals. The event’s impact would be far reaching in many ways. For decades, Bhopal victims have demanded compensation and justice above the $470 million that Union Carbide paid in 1989. Carbide, once a rival to DuPont and Dow, started breaking up under the financial and reputational strain of the disaster. Dow bought it in 2001.

Image of an archived C&EN article about Bhopal, highlighting a quote.


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