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Remembering Bhopal 30 Years Later

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Children stand near the dilapidated premises of Union Carbide in Bhopal, India. (Photo via Bhopal Medical Appeal / Flickr CC)
Thirty years ago, toxic gas leaking from Union Carbide’s factory in Bhopal claimed more than 5,000 lives and exposed more than half a million people to harmful toxins.  The negligence and human tragedy made Bhopal synonymous with industrial disaster and showed just how harmful chemical pollution is to health and well-being. The enormous human loss calls for remembering the victims and stronger engagement on a wide range of pollution management and environmental health issues to prevent similar tragedies.

What Happened Then?
A chemical gas spilled from a pesticide factory owned by Union Carbide. More than 40 tons of gas created a dense cloud over more than half a million people and killed thousands.  None of the six safety systems at the plant worked to prevent the disaster. The company’s own documents prove the plant was designed with “untested” technology, and that it cut corners on safety and maintenance in order to save money.

The State of Bhopal Today
Today, clean-up of the site is still pending, those who survived the disaster don’t have alternate livelihood opportunities and victims are still suffering.

The company abandoned the factory site without cleaning and restoring it to its original state.  The contaminated land has not been cleaned up and families too poor to move continue to live there.  The livelihoods of more than 30,000 people are affected. 

More than 20,000 people still live in the vicinity of the factory and are exposed to toxic chemicals through groundwater and soil contamination. Health risks and illnesses including cancer, birth defects, fevers, broils, headaches, nausea, lack of appetite, dizziness, and constant exhaustion continue to plague a new generation. Tests published in 2002 reported dangerous toxins in the breast milk of nursing women living near the factory.

Recent reports confirm that the contamination is not diminishing with time. Water from a hand pump in Atal Ayub Nagar, already lethal by 1999, has become seven times more toxic since then.  The rate of birth defects in the contaminated areas is ten times higher than in the rest of India.

In 2001, Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide. The governments of India and the state of Madhya Pradesh are continuing the court battle with the company to accept environmental liabilities through the purchase.

Preventing Environmental Disasters
While natural disasters are largely unpredictable, environmental disasters are caused directly or indirectly by human behavior.  Chemical disasters, like the one in Bhopal, are preventable if risks are identified and addressed early on.  

It will take the combined effort of competent authorities, private sector and society to prevent tragic environmental events from happening. Some measures include: Developing policies to ensure that industries operate in accordance with technical and safety standards and allocating resources for risk assessment and monitoring. Most of all, it’s important to adhere to environmental norms. Taking environmental safety and public health risks seriously, and promoting do-no-harm industrial development can make a big difference.  

There is a clear need to promote clean development that innovatively addresses potential negative impacts on the environment. To prevent future environmental disasters, all sectors could also do more to integrate environmental emergency preparedness and response activities into strategies and sustainable development programs. These measures could make a big difference in people’s health and well-being, and avoid future tragedies.


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