On the night of December 2, 1984, chemical, methyl isocyanate (MIC) spilt out from Union Carbide India Ltd’s (UCIL’s) pesticide factory turned the city of Bhopal into a colossal gas chamber. It was India's first major industrial disaster. At least 30 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas killed more than 15,000 people and affected over 600,000 workers. Bhopal gas tragedy is known as world's worst industrial disaster.
Warning bell before the tragedy
In 1969, the UCIL factory was made to produce Sevin (a pesticide) using methyl isocyanate as an intermediate. In 1976, trade unions in Bhopal complained of pollution within the plant. A few years later, a worker accidentally inhaled a large amount of toxic phosgene gas, leading to his death a couple of hours later. Observing the events, a journalist began investigating the plant and also published his findings in Bhopal's local paper, saying - 'Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano'. Two years before tragedy struck Bhopal, around 45 workers who were exposed to phosgene were admitted to a hospital. Between 1983 and 1984, thee were leaks of phosgene, carbon tetrachloride, methyl isocyanate and mono methylamine.
How methyl isocyanate leaked happened
Union Carbide India's Bhopal facility housed three 68,000-litre liquid MIC storage tanks: E610, E611, and E619. Months before the tragedy, MIC production was in progress and was being filled in the tanks. No tank was allowed to be filled more than 50% of its capacity and the tank was pressurized with inert nitrogen gas. The pressurization allowed liquid MIC to be pumped out of each tank. However, one of the tanks (E610) lost the ability to contain nitrogen gas pressure, hence liquid MIC could not be pumped out of it. As per the rules, each of the tanks could not be filled with more than 30 tonnes of liquid MIC. But this tank had 42 tonnes. This failure forced UCIL to halt methyl isocyanate production in Bhopal and the plant was partly shut for maintenance. An attempt was made to make the defective tank functional again on December 1, however the attempt failed. By then, most of the plant's methyl isocyanate related safety systems were malfunctioning. According to reports, by December 2 eve, water had entered the malfunctioning tank, which resulted in runaway chemical reaction. The pressure in the tank increased five times by night. By midnight, the workers in the MIC area started feeling the effects of MIC gas. The decision to address the leak was to be made a couple of minutes later. However, by then the chemical reaction in the tank had reached a critical state. About 30 tonnes of MIC escaped from the tank into the atmosphere within an hour. Most Bhopal residents were made aware of the gas leak by exposure to the gas itself.
Impact of methyl isocyanate leak
Doctors were not aware of proper treatment methods the incident. Methyl isocyanate gas leak killed more than 15,000 people and affected over 600,000 workers. The stillbirth rate and the neonatal mortality rate increased by up to 300% and 200% respectively. The gas leak impact trees and animals too. Within a couple of days, trees in the nearby area became barren. Bloated animal carcasses had to be disposed of. People ran on the streets, vomiting and dying. The city ran out of cremation grounds.
Govt's response to Bhopal tragedy
Until then, the Indian government had never dealt with a disaster like this. Legal proceedings between India, UCC and the US began right after the catastrophe. The government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985, which allowed it to act as the legal representative for victims. While the UCC initially offered a $5 million relief fund to India, the government turned down the offer and demanded $3.3 billion. Eventually, an out-of-court settlement was reached in February 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million for damages caused. The Supreme Court of India also laid down guidelines for the money—the family of the dead were to be given Rs 100,000-300,000. In addition, fully or partially disabled were to get Rs 50,000-500,000 and those with a temporary injury, Rs 25,000-100,000. The apex court asked UCIL to "voluntarily" fund a hospital in Bhopal to treat victims of the tragedy. In June 2010, seven former employees of UCIL, who were all Indian nationals, were convicted of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years of imprisonment. However, they were later released on bail.
Bhopal after over three decades of the tragedy
As the legal battles were on in India and the US, Dow Chemical Company successfully took over UCC in 2001, after which it became a wholly-owned subsidiary. Thereafter, Dow claimed that UCC did not have any responsibility towards the tragedy, as it was legally a new company with new ownership.
Ingrid Eckerman in his book – The Bhopal Saga recalls what a victim told him, “Death would have been a great relief. It’s worse to be a survivor”. Thirty years later, there is no closure in the case. Thousands of survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy continue to face a lack of healthcare facilities. After the factory was closed, whatever remained inside was sealed and kept there. Gas victims’ welfare organisations have been demanding its removal for years. Many petitions have been lying in the high court and the SC for removal of the plant’s poisonous remains.
What is Methyl Isocyanate (MIC)?
Methyl Isocyanate is a colourless liquid used for making pesticides. MIC is safe when maintained properly. The chemical is highly reactive to heat. When exposed to water, the compounds in MIC react with each other causing a heat reaction.
Methyl Isocyanate is no longer in production, although it is still used in pesticides. The Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, West Virgina is currently the only storage location of MIC left across the globe.
Methyl Isocyanate chemical reaction's impact on health
Immediate health effects include ulcers, photophobia, respiratory issues, anorexia, persistent abdominal pain, genetic issue, neuroses, impaired audio and visual memory, impaired reasoning ability, and a lot more.
Long-term health effects include chronic conjunctivitis, decreased lung function, increased pregnancy loss, increased infant mortality, increased chromosomal abnormalities, impaired associate learning and more.