Bhopal: 30 Years Later

The Bhopal Disaster occurred on December 3, 1984 in Bhopal, India when a Union Carbide pesticide plant (now owned by Dow Chemical) producing the insecticide carbaryl released methyl isocynate, which leaked from an overheated holding 43 tons of the highly toxic gas.  Because methyl isocyanate is heavier than air, it traveled over the ground through the Bhopal city center. The transportation system collapsed, and many people were trampled to death in a mad rush to flee the visible gases. In total, 15,000 people died—including 8000 to 10000 during the first three days-- and 150,000-600,000 people were injured. Methyl isocyanate causes a range of both short- and long-term health effects, including eye and respiratory problems, stomach pain and diarrhea, increased chromosomal abnormalities, and higher infant mortality. 

Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million to the residents of Bhopal. That amount is lower than in the lawsuit and substantially lower than similar asbestos cases Union Carbide was settling concurrently in the United States. By the end of October 2003, according to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, compensation had been awarded to 554,895 people for injuries received and 15,310 survivors of those killed. The average amount to families of the dead was $2,200. Union Carbide also attempted to distance itself from the tragedy by blaming its subsidiary in India and even fabricated stories about a Sikh extremist group and disgruntled former employees bent on sabotaging the plant.

This was a tragic and preventable accident that brought global attention to the plight of poor people living near a major industrial complex. This a classic lesson in the necessity of promoting environmental justice, which calls to prevent the effects of pollution and other environmental problems from falling disproportionately on lower-income, minority, or otherwise marginalized communities. Though the Bhopal Disaster ultimately spurred laws such as the US Toxics Release Inventory, which tracks and reports data on certain chemical emissions from industrial plants, the legacy of the tragedy is still carried by children as well as adults who suffer the effects of needless chemical exposure.