In 1969 the American Union Carbide Company established a factory at the Indian city of Bhopal. It would produce the pesticide carbaryl, marketed as Sevin – a process made more efficient in 1979 when a methyl isocyanate (MIC) plant was built on site. Union Carbide knew this chemical was hazardous, but it was cheaper than alternative ingredients of Sevin and managers wrongly believed that a first-class handling strategy was in place. On the night of December 2 1984 water flooded Tank 610, which contained 42 tons of methyl isocyanate, and initiated a complex chemical reaction that rapidly heated the contents.
By midnight a temperature of 200°C (392°F) had blown a safety valve, releasing a toxic mixture of poisonous gases into the atmosphere. Residents of Bhopal started waking with symptoms that included burning lungs, violent coughing, severe eye irritation and vomiting.
Many died almost immediately and others were killed in the panic- stricken melee that followed. Even as Union Carbide denied that there had been a leak, police started evacuating residents and hospitals filled to overflowing with victims, many of whom had been blinded. Fatalities were measured in thousands, with terrifying implications for those who survived but would face chronic medical problems and premature death in the years ahead.
Union Carbide scientists had identified the danger of a runaway reaction of the kind that occurred in Bhopal, but their report never reached senior management. Before 1984 there had been numerous minor industrial accidents at the plant, some involving MIC, but these ominous signs were ignored, along with dire warnings from visiting American experts and the Indian authorities. Leaving all that aside, the tragedy would have been averted if Tank 610’s refrigeration system hadn’t been switched off to save money. This was an industrial massacre that should never have happened.
When: December 3 1984
Where: Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India
Death toll: Officially, it stands at 3,787. Unofficially, it is thought that a more realistic total is around 35,000 (10,000 within days and another 25,000 who died later from diseases related to the gas poisoning).
You should know: The Union Carbide factory site became a permanent dumping ground for some 400 tons of toxic waste that polluted ground water and thus continued to damage the health of the local population.