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1984 - Huge Poison Gas Leak in Bhopal, India

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Huge Poison Gas Leak in Bhopal, India (1984): During the night of December 2-3, 1984, a storage tank containing methyl isocyanate (MIC) at the Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked gas into the densely populated city of Bhopal, India. It was one of the worst industrial accidents in history.

Union Carbide India, Ltd. built a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India in the late 1970s in an effort to produce pesticides locally to help increase production on local farms. However, sales of pesticide didn't materialize in the numbers hoped for and the plant was soon losing money. In 1979, the factory began to produce large amounts of the highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC), because it was a cheaper way to make the pesticide carbaryl. To also cut costs, training and maintenance in the factory were drastically cut back. Workers in the factory complained about the dangerous conditions and warned of possible disasters, but management did not take any action.

On the night of December 2-3, 1984, something began to go wrong in storage tank E610 which contained 40 tons of MIC. Water leaked into the tank which caused the MIC to heat up. Some sources say that water leaked into the tank during routine cleaning of a pipe but that the safety valves inside the pipe were faulty. The Union Carbide company claims that a saboteur placed the water inside the tank, although there has never been proof of this. It is also considered possible that once the tank began to overheat, workers threw water on the tank, not realizing they were adding to the problem.

By 12:15 a.m. on the morning of December 3, 1984, MIC fumes were leaking out of the storage tank. Although there should have been six safety features that would have either prevented the leak or contained it, all six did not work properly that night. It is estimated that 27 tons of MIC gas escaped out of the container and spread across the densely populated city of Bhopal, India, which had a population of approximately 900,000 people. Although a warning siren was turned on, it was quickly turned off again so as to not cause panic.

Most residents of Bhopal were sleeping when the gas began to leak. Many woke up only because they heard their children coughing or found themselves choking on the fumes. As people jumped up from their beds, they felt their eyes and throat burning. Some choked on their own bile. Others fell to the ground in contortions of pain.

People ran and ran, but they did not know in which direction to go. Families were split up in the confusion. Many people fell to the ground unconscious and were then trampled upon.

Estimates of the death toll vary greatly. Most sources say at least 3,000 people died from immediate exposure to the gas, while higher estimates go up to 8,000. In the two decades following the night of the disaster, approximately 20,000 additional people have died from the damage they received from the gas.

Another 120,000 people live daily with the effects from the gas, including blindness, extreme shortness of breath, cancers, birth deformities, and early onset of menopause. Chemicals from the pesticide plant and from the leak have infiltrated the water system and the soil near the old factory and thus continue to cause poisoning in the people who live near it.

Just three days after the disaster, the chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, was arrested. When he was released on bail, he fled the country. Although his whereabouts were unknown for many years, recently he was found living in the Hamptons in New York. Extradition procedures have not started because of political issues. Anderson continues to be wanted in India for culpable homicide for his role in the Bhopal disaster.

One of the worst parts of this tragedy is actually what has happened in the years following that fateful night in 1984. Although Union Carbide has paid some restitution to the victims, the company claims they are not liable for any damages because they blame a saboteur for the disaster and claim that the factory was in good working order before the gas leak. The victims of the Bhopal gas leak have received very little money. Many of the victims continue to live in ill health and are unable to work.

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