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What Was the Bhopal Disaster?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Bhopal Disaster was an industrial accident which occurred on 3 December, 1984, in Bhopal, India. Many people believe that the Bhopal Disaster was the worst industrial accident in history, pointing to the high death toll at the time of the accident, along with the lingering health and environmental effects. Events in Bhopal also raised global awareness about the factory culture in developing nations, with many activists suggesting that the accident occurred because of lax attitudes about safety, maintenance, and human life.

Late on the night of 3 December, workers at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal were flushing pipes with clean water. Somehow, water entered a tank filled with methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, a gas used in the production of pesticides. The water set off a chemical reaction which caused pressure to rise inside the tank, forcing workers to vent the tank before it exploded, and a large quantity of the lethal gas was released into Bhopal. Almost immediately, warning sirens went off, but they were quickly silenced, so most of the citizens of Bhopal were unaware of the crisis.

The volume of gas released in the Bhopal Disaster is a topic of dispute, with estimates ranging from 20 to 40 tons. It also became apparent that other gases in addition to MIC were released, including phosgene and hydrogen cyanide. Many workers in the plant were killed very quickly as the gas seeped out into Bhopal, waking citizens with feelings of choking “as though someone had stuffed chilies into our bodies,” as one survivor described it. While attempting to flee, many citizens inadvertently moved in the same direction as the gas cloud, making their symptoms worse, and numerous people were trampled and run over in the panic.

An estimated two to eight thousand people were killed within a few days of the Bhopal Disaster. Most of them suffocated from gas inhalation, experiencing painful respiratory symptoms, eye pain, and brain swelling before death. In the wake of the disaster, it was difficult to keep track of how many people had been affected, due to the sheer volume of fatalities, and numerous animal and human bodies were hastily disposed of before they could pose a health threat, making it even more difficult to get an accurate body count.

It is estimated that an additional eight thousand people died of the effects of prolonged gas exposure in the years following the Bhopal Disaster, and up to 100,000 more may be affected with a variety of conditions including chronic respiratory conditions, birth defects, neurological problems, depressed immune systems, and cardiac malfunction. In 1993, the International Medical Commission on Bhopal was established to help address some of these problems, and ongoing treatment continues at the site.

Investigations into the Bhopal Disaster suggested that Union Carbide did not have adequate safety measures in place to prevent such a disaster, and that the condition of the factory's equipment made such an accident almost inevitable. The company was accused of cost-cutting and a lack of regard for the safety of its workers and the surrounding community, and it retaliated, claiming that the disaster was the result of sabotage. Investigations of the sabotage claim ultimately concluded that if the company had put proper safety mechanisms in place, it would have been impossible to have a disaster of that scale as the result of sabotage.

Union Carbide ultimately paid a hefty sum in settlements to the citizens of Bhopal, and the government of India also attempted to charge the CEO of the company with manslaughter, although he has yet to appear in an Indian court. The site of the disaster continues to be heavily contaminated, with poisoned soil and groundwater posing a health threat to the citizens of the area. Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, disavows any liability for ongoing problems at the Bhopal site.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon322106 — On Feb 26, 2013

The posts here are a lie. Warren Anderson was arrested and then sent away by the Indian government so no vigilante action would be taken against him for a tragedy that he could not have prevented because the plant design could not (or ever) account for the sabotage by employees that caused this incident.

The subsequent refusal by Dow Chemicals to clean the site up is a result of the Indian government using the site, post incident, as a chemical dumping ground for its toxic waste from throughout the country.

The reason this tragedy occurred, other than the obvious case of sabotage -- which was the only confirmed way that explains the gas release (through testing of the safety valves and components at the plant) -- was through the manufacturing process of the pesticides being produced. The most safe processes of producing these pesticides did not involve MIC but the Indian government did not have restrictions on using MIC in the production, therefore, setting up the situation where large tanks of MIC, volatile when in contact with water, were stored at the facility.

This set up the situation for easy sabotage in an environment that was lax in its safety requirements as allowed by the Indian government.

Coupled with the massive influx of the 'squatter' population around the plant, which did not exist before the plant's construction, made the tragedy that much worse.

By Georgesplane — On Jun 24, 2010

@ GlassAxe- The reason that the Indian Government is not pressing the United States Government harder for Anderson's extradition has to do with economics and politics. There is internal conflict within the Indian Government on how to proceed with the prosecution of Anderson. India's Central Investigation Bureau has even filed the equivalent of a motion with the Indian court to reduce the charges against Anderson.

India is a developing nation that relies on the fact that they have favorable economic and environmental regulations for many of the world's largest industrial companies. As crazy as it sounds, the Indian Government has to be careful not to press what is now Dow Chemical too hard because it may create a facade that India is not friendly to industry.

Companies like Dow, BASF, Bayer, and United Phosphorous rely on the lax environmental and pollution laws in India to increase profit margins. If laws tighten up, they may move operations elsewhere. Not only do these factors underscore the internal conflict over the Bhopal disaster, they underscore the resistance from developing nations agreeing to comprehensive global emissions standards.

By GlassAxe — On Jun 24, 2010

Probably the most shameful aspect of the whole disaster is that Warren Anderson, former CEO of Union Carbide, left India within a week of the disaster, and has since never returned. The Union Carbide company only paid $470 million, and even that took five years. According to Greenpeace, 90% of the victims received less than 500 USD.

This is a small sum considering current medical estimates of deaths related to the Bhopal disaster are close to 25,000. Imagine if BP only offered the residents of the Gulf and the family's of the eleven deceased rig workers $500 million. There would be rioting and outrage!

I almost feel embarrassed that Warren Anderson is comfortably living in a million dollar home in the Hamptons. To this day, he has refused to take responsibility, and he has ignored arrest warrants from the Indian Government. The United States Government even claims that it does not know where Anderson lives, even though protesters often gather outside of his Hampton Beach home.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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