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Bhopal and Chemical Safety — Could Such a Disaster Happen in the U.S.?

Twenty years ago—on December 3, 1984—a Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing plant exploded in Bhopal, India, releasing a huge cloud of toxic gas that caused 8,000 deaths within a few days. An estimated half a million people suffered injuries. Over the last two decades, more than 20,000 additional people have died as a result of the original exposure, and an estimated 120,000 still suffer significant health impacts. People continue to die each month from the long-term effects of the poisoning.

Perhaps a 20-year-old accident half-way across the world seems irrelevant to life in the United States, but please read on. No one wants to see a Bhopal-style disaster in the US, but measures to prevent one are grossly inadequate.


To understand how the disaster in Bhopal is relevant to chemical dangers here in the Western world, one must first understand the ways in which the Union Carbide pesticide plant caused the deaths and health problems. There are two main ways people in Bhopal have been exposed to chemicals.

Source of Chemical Contamination #1 — The Gas Release

The first type of chemical exposure happened in the first few days after the Bhopal accident, when the cloud of poisonous gases—including methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide, and other chemicals—spread into the air in the neighborhoods surrounding the pesticide plant.

The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists a number of harmful effects of acute exposure to methyl isocyanate and hydrogen cyanide:

• Getting them in eyes or on skin — Causes burns and sores. Eye damage may be severe and permanent.

• Breathing them — Causes severe damage to lungs. Causes brain and heart damage. Can cause coma and death.

Additionally, in pregnant women and infants, methyl isocyanate increases the rate of spontaneous abortion and damage to fetuses, and may increase the rate of neonatal death.

Given the volume of poison gas released in the accident—at least 27 tons of gas—it's not surprising that so many people in Bhopal were negatively affected.


When Dow Corporation purchased Union Carbide in 2001, they acquired all of Union Carbide's assets and liabilities. However, Dow maintains that it isn't liable for any remaining problems related to the Bhopal accident because of a 1989 settlement between Union Carbide and the Indian government. However, that settlement did not address environmental damages, and today Dow remains in denial of their obligation to clean up contamination within and around the site. The US and Indian governments have shown little interest in holding Dow accountable.

Finally, it's worth noting that the 1989 settlement—on which the people affected were not even consulted—worked out to less than $500 per survivor. And it took an order from the Indian Supreme court in 2004 to finally get the funds released. Sheesh!

For more information, visit Bhopal Medial Appeal.

POST NOTE: On December 3, 2004—the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster—both the BBC and NPR reported that Dow Chemical had announced that it would finally accept responsibility for the Bhopal accident and pledged $12 billion for remediation of the site and compensation of the victims. The story turned out to be a hoax perpetrated on the news organizations.

Source of Chemical Contamination #2 — Leaking Chemicals

The poison cloud of gas has not been the only source of contamination for the people of Bhopal. Union Carbide failed to properly remediate the site after the factory was permanently closed down.

Various studies and reports over the last five years have found the site to be severely contaminated with a variety of chemicals that were used in the pesticide manufacturing process, with thousands of tons of toxic waste still stored on the site in various states of dilapidation. The surrounding land and water is contaminated with toxins that include lead, mercury and organochlorines, with the levels of mercury in

picture of leaking barrels of chemicals at Bhopal

At the site of the closed Union Carbide pesticide-manufacturing plant in Bhopal, bags of chemicals are piled around by the hundreds, with most spilling their contents because the bags are decaying. Barrels of unidentified waste spew their chemicals onto the ground. These materials continue to seep into the water supplies of an estimated 20,000 people in nearby communities. [Photo and caption courtesy of Skip Spitzer, Pesticide Action Network North America]

some places 6 million times higher than background levels. Drinking-water wells near the site show overall chemical contamination to be 500 times higher than the maximum limits recommended by the World Health Organization. The contaminants include chemicals known to cause cancer, genetic defects, and liver and kidney damage. Indeed, the group Bhopal Medical Appeal reports that since the disaster, survivors have been plagued with an epidemic of cancers, menstrual disorders, and what one doctor described as "monstrous births" (retardation and gruesome birth defects).


Could a major accident or terrorist strike at a chemical plant cause such horrible trouble in the United States? Are there chemical sites in the US that companies have irresponsibly left behind? Are there still-operating sites that are routinely emitting poisons into our air, land, and drinking-water supply?

Catastrophic chemical releases due to accidents or terrorism

After the Bhopal disaster, the US EPA decided to analyze a number of chemical "incidents" in the US. Of the 29 incidents reviewed, the study found that in 17 cases the volume of chemicals released was high enough that the consequences—depending on plant location and weather conditions—could have been more severe than those in Bhopal in 1984. Subsequently, rules for US chemical plants were tightened and a government-mandated risk management program was implemented, including a requirement that information picture of chemical tanks on worst-case scenarios and accident histories be made available to the public. So, are we safe now? Not so fast ...

According to the Public Interest Research Group, US law does not require chemical companies to take specific security measures to protect the public from accidental releases or terrorist attacks. While some states have successfully implemented strong public-right-to-know laws and risk-reduction programs, most federal and state regulations are more focused on assessing risk and preparedness and on outlining what should happen after a release, not on what should be done to enhance safety and prevent toxic releases.

In general, the government essentially allows the chemical-product and chemical-using industries to self-regulate. Unfortunately, under this self-regulation approach, chemical companies have an inherent incentive to develop standards that they know their facilities can meet, rather than standards that best protect public health and safety. There is no enforceable requirement for companies to provide accurate information to nearby communities on risks, and the information on accidents and impacts that is provided to the public by chemical companies is often minimal.

The biggest flaw in the chemical industry's plan to regulate itself is the failure to require companies to consider safer chemicals and processes as a way of reducing risk. There are many, many processes and products that use toxic chemicals that could be reengineered to use less noxious reagents. For instance, water treatment plants can switch to disinfectant chemicals that don't use dangerous forms of chlorine, large quantities of which must be stored on-site at a typical treatment plant. Unfortunately, a US Senate measure to require industrial users of chemicals to consider less-toxic alternatives—and thus lower risk to surrounding communities—was squashed by the Senate leadership after protests from the chemical industry.

The chemical industry claims it has done much to improve safety at the country's chemical plants, especially since 9/11, but annual accident figures cataloged by the federal government's National Response Center don't provide any indication that this is so (see table below).

  1998 1,232  
  1999 1,333  
  2000 2,207  
  2001 1,675  
  2002 2,138  
  2003 1,956  

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now in responsible for ensuring chemical facility security, and DHS claims to have placed physical infrastructure security at chemical plants on the top of its priority list. So, we may or may not be safer than before, but the real question is, could we be safer still?

Industrial sites that leak chemicals into land, air, and water

Are there many sites in the US that are leaking and emitting toxic chemicals into our air, land, and water? You bet'cha. As of October, 2004, there were still 1,237 Superfund toxic waste sites that have yet to be cleaned up. And those are just the legacy sites where old contamination still leaches into our continent. Active industrial sites release over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals every year, including 72 million pounds of recognized carcinogens. You can see how much of this lunacy is happening near you by visiting these two web pages from Superfund Sites  |  Toxics Releases


There are two types of action you can take:

  • Let your politicians know you think that:
    • Neighborhoods have a right to know what chemicals are used and stored at industrial facilities near them; and
    • Industrial companies that use chemicals should be required to perform analyses that compare less toxic alternatives to current methods, and they should provide these results to communities.

  • Make a personal commitment to reducing your use of products that contain industrial chemicals.
    • Household cleaners — Look for non-toxic brands like Seventh Generation, Planet, Ecos, Earth Friendly, and Ecover. Unless you have a forward-thinking supermarket or drug store, finding such products may mean a trip to the natural foods store.
    • Paints, stains, sealants, and solvents — Look for low-toxicity, low-VOC versions. Some of the major manufacturers have limited lines of such products, or try AFM Safecoat. If you need to get rid of old paint, check with your local recycling or environmental-protection agency on the right way to do it.
    • Personal care products — Look for brands like Aubrey, Toms of Maine, Aveda, Dr. Bronner's, Nature's Gate, Kiss My Face, Jason Natural.
    • Paper products — Buy only chlorine-free paper products (to reduce the amount of chlorine used for whitening in paper processing). This applies to printer paper, paper towels, tissues, etc.
    • Food — Eat organic food to reduce the number of chemical pesticides being manufactured.
    • Lawn care and pest control — Stop using chemical fertilizers on your lawn, and stop using chemical bug sprays and weed killers. There are alternatives — you just have to look.

Publish date: 07-DEC-2004

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