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.