The World’s Worst Man Made Accidents: Bhopal

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Man-made accidents are stained by a “special” strain of tragedy if such a word can be used. Unlike natural disasters, which are powered by unavoidable forces of nature, man-made accidents are the avoidable result of carelessness, recklessness — and greed.  When companies make cold calculations which place profit over safety and regular maintenance, innocent people suffer and die. This is the first entry in a blog series about the world’s worst man-made accidents, and we’re beginning with a tragedy that’s been described as the worst industrial accident in history: Bhopal.

Bhopal Disaster

Union Carbide Brings Pesticide Plant to Bhopal

It adds to the sadness of an already bleak tale that for all its casualties, Bhopal has been relegated to a position of relative obscurity.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a single person in the United States who’d never heard the word “Chernobyl” — but ask the same person about Bhopal, and you’re likely to draw a blank stare.

Bhopal is the capital of India’s Madhya Pradesh state, known as the “heart of India.”  Today, nearly 3.5 million people call Bhopal home, including India’s largest manufacturing company, the government-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited.

But in 1984, another industrial giant loomed over Bhopal: Union Carbide.

Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) was created in 1934, with ownership split almost evenly between the Union Carbide Corporation and the government of India.  UCIL churned out a variety of products and industrial chemicals, ranging from batteries to plastics to a pesticide.

In 1969, Union Carbide opened its Bhopal plant to produce a pesticide called Sevin.  Sevin is the brand name for a white, crystalline material known as Carbaryl, which continues to enjoy widespread popularity as an insecticide in America today.

A History of Accidents, Injuries, and Deaths

Sevin is produced using a dangerous chemical called methyl isocyanate, or MIC.  MIC is known to be extremely toxic, irritating, and potentially deadly to humans, but Union Carbide officials made assurances that the substance would be carefully controlled and would not pose a danger to local residents… even though the plant’s shoddy track record would imply otherwise.

In 1981, just three years before the disaster, a plant worker was killed within days after inhaling uncontained phosgene gas — notorious as a World War I-era chemical weapon.  The following year, another, larger phosgene leak exposed 24 workers to the dangerous gas.  Over the next several years, the plant would continue to be plagued by repeated leaks of phosgene, chlorine gas, and MIC — until 1984 arrived with the worst leak of all.

Syed Irfan.

3,787 People Killed, Another 558,125 Injured

It was after midnight in the early hours of December 3rd, 1984.  The residents of Bhopal and its surrounding shantytowns were sleeping quietly, utterly oblivious to the disaster looming just ahead.

As hundreds of thousands of people slept, MIC was beginning to leak into the air.

As greater and greater quantities of the deadly chemical seeped into the environment, the sleeping residents of Bhopal started to jerk awake, racked by coughing fits, rubbing their burning eyes, clutching their stomachs and vomiting.  Some put two and two together and fled away from the plant, but the exertion of running caused them to inhale huge amounts of the poisoned air. Many people never woke up at all. When morning dawned over a ravaged Bhopal, devastated locals and horrified news-watchers around the world realized that the death toll had climbed into the thousands.

The official report placed the death toll at 2,259 lost lives — and that’s the conservative estimate. The Madhya Pradesh state government reported losses closer to 3,787 deaths. 

In addition to the fatalities, thousands more were injured — many severely.  In 2006, over 20 years after the tragedy, an official affidavit stated that the Bhopal disaster ultimately caused an almost unfathomable 558,125 injuries — among which nearly 4,000 were permanently disabling. To put these numbers into perspective, the immediate death toll at Chernobyl was 31. The most common causes of death following MIC exposure were reported as choking, circulatory failure, and pulmonary edema, where fluid accumulates in the lungs.

Dow Chemicals.

Liability for the Bhopal Disaster

To this day, the cause of — and blame for — the Bhopal disaster is shrouded in controversy, speculation, and debate.

On one hand, the plant had a known track record of safety violations and maintenance failures. The years preceding the Bhopal tragedy were plagued with numerous chemical leaks, and plant management had ignored warnings from local authorities dating back to 1979.

Overproduction aggravated the problems even further.  By 1984, Sevin sales had been lagging for years, causing an ever-growing build-up of unused MIC.  This meant that the MIC used at the Bhopal plant was stored in dangerously large quantities, with reports stating that the leaking tank, Tank 610, was filled with between 11,000 and 13,000 gallons of the substance. 

While the facts seem to point toward lax and downright negligent regulatory efforts at the Bhopal plant, Union Carbide nonetheless denies fault for the disaster.  According to Union Carbide, the leak was probably caused by a disgruntled employee deliberately sabotaging Tank 610 to release MIC. But even if that is true — why wasn’t better security in place?

In the aftermath of the event, an enraged and decimated community pressed for answers. In 1989, the Union Carbide Corporation ultimately settled litigation for $470 million. To this day, criminal and civil cases continue to develop in Bhopal’s District Court.  As recently as 2010, seven former employees were convicted of negligence.  Each was penalized with a $2,000 fine and two years behind bars. Do fourteen years and $14,000 represent justice for thousands dead and half a million injured?

On a closing note, it’s worth mentioning that MIC can cause long-term health effects which last for decades or a lifetime.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

Survivors continue to exhibit damage to the lungs and eyes.  Reproductive effects and increased number of stillbirths and spontaneous abortions were noted in the survivors of the Bhopal, India accident.

Even today, Bhopal’s unborn continue to be punished by the preventable events of one night in 1984.

The disaster also produced one of the world’s most haunting and infamous photographs.

If you or someone you love was hurt by a workplace accident, or through negligent maintenance or reckless endangerment, someone may be liable for your injuries, suffering, and medical costs. To schedule a 100% free and confidential case evaluation with a personal injury lawyer, call the Pennsylvania law firm of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.

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