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In 1984, a tragedy occurred in Bhopal, India, resulting in 8,000 people dying immediately and a further 40,000 suffering disability or death over the next few years. The Union Carbide Company of India, a subsidiary company of Union Carbide USA, suffered one of the worst industrial disasters the world has known through a gas leakage. Most victims were slum-dwellers and did not come from an organized group which was aware of their rights. The company was later sold to other companies and is now part of Dow Chemicals USA. The parent company and chief executive of the Indian group tried its utmost to avoid responsibility. The fight for justice was organized by

The Bhopal Disaster

Around 1 a.m. on Monday, the 3rd of December, 1984, In the city of
Bhopal, Central India, a poisonous vapour burst from the tall stacks of the Union Carbide pesticide plant. This vapour was a highly toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate. 2,000 died immediately 300,000 were injured 7,000 animals were injured, of which about one thousand were killed.

Factors Leading to the Massacre

The use of hazardous chemicals (MIC) instead of less dangerous ones Storing these chemicals in large tanks instead of over 200 steel drums. Possible corroding material in pipelines Poor maintenance after the plant ceased production in the early 1980s Failure of several safety systems (due to poor maintenance and regulations). Safety systems shut down to save money - including the MIC tank refrigeration system which alone would have prevented the disaster.


A tank containing methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked. MIC is an extremely reactive chemical and is used in production of the insecticide carbaryl. The scientific reason for the accident was that water entered the tank where about 40 cubic meters of MIC was stored. When water and MIC mixed, an exothermic chemical reaction started, producing a lot of heat. As a result, the safety valve of the tank burst because of the increase in pressure. It is presumed that between 20 and 30 tonnes of MIC were released during the hour that the leak took place. The gas leaked from a 30 m high chimney and this height was not enough to reduce the effects of the discharge.


The high moisture content (aerosol) in the discharge when evaporating, gave rise to a heavy gas which rapidly sank to the ground. A weak wind which frequently changed direction, which in turn helped the gas to cover more area in a shorter period of time (about one hour). The weak wind and the weak vertical turbulence caused a slow dilution of gas and thus allowed the poisonous gas to spread over considerable distances.


A disgruntled plant employee, apparently bent on spoiling a batch of methyl isocyanate, added water to a storage tank. -------B. Browning Jackson (Vice President)


The media played a significant role in establishing the WATER WASHING THEORY as a plausible explanation. According to this story, an MIC operator was told to wash a section of a subheader of the relief valve vent header ("RVVH") in the MIC manufacturing unit. Because he failed to insert a slip-blind, as called for by plant standard operating procedures, the water supposedly backed up into the header and eventually found its way into the tank. Because he failed to insert a slip-blind, as called for by plant standard operating procedures, the water supposedly backed up into the header and eventually found its way into the tank and flowed 400 feet to the tank which would require a massive pressure head and as indicated my reports would take some time to build up Conclusive reports indicated that 2000 lbs of water entered the tank and for this water to build up and have an instantaneous exothermic reaction would not be possible


During the shift change -- that a disgruntled operator entered the storage area and hooked up one of the readily available rubber water hoses to Tank with the intention of contaminating and spoiling the tank's contents. He unscrewed the local pressure indicator, which can be easily accomplished by hand, and connected the hose to the tank. The entire operation could be completed within five minutes. Minor incidents of process sabotage by employees had occurred previously at the Bhopal plant. The water and MIC reaction initiated the formation of carbon dioxide which, together with MIC vapours, was carried through the header system and out of the stack of the vent gas scrubber by about 11:30 to 11:45 p.m

The Aftermath
There were mass funerals and mass cremations as well as disposal of bodies in the Narmada river. More than 170,000 people had to be treated at hospitals and temporary dispensaries. More than 2,000 buffalo, goats, and other animals were collected and buried. Contamination of ground water in UCF neighborhood Destruction of vegetation Massive shortage of supplies of basic necessities, including food, due to the safety concerns of the suppliers.

Instant effects:
Airways: Burning like chili, cough, suffocation, bronchiolitis etc. Eyes: Severeirritation , blepharospasm (could not open eyes), corneal ulcers etc. Reproduction: Miscarriages, death of fetus, increased infant death rate. Autopsy: Edema swollen, necrotic. of brain, kidney
Picture: Retarded growth. Source: Picture: A deformed fetus. Source:

Long term effects:

Eyes. Respiratory system. Lung injury. Immune system. Neurological system. Psychological effects. Womens reproductive health. Genetics etc.
Picture: A still borne baby.

The blame game

The company charged the governments with "contributory" responsibility for the leak of poisonous gases, saying both governments knew of the toxicity of MIC but failed to take adequate precautions to prevent a disaster. UCC further argued that the day-to-day working of UCIL was independent of the parent company and therefore it could not to be held responsible for the gas leak.

In addition to causing the Bhopal disaster, UCC was also guilty of prolonging the misery and suffering of the survivors.
It withheld medical information on the chemicals, thus depriving victims of proper medical care. It delayed the legal case at each stage in its progress through the courts UCCs determined response was to evade responsibility and compensation claims was driven by the need to convince shareholders and financial markets that the company would not be crippled by legal actions and massive financial claims on assets and profits.


The Madhya Pradesh State government had not mandated any safety standards. Union Carbide failed to implement its own safety rules. The Bhopal plant experienced six accidents between 1981 and 1984, at least three of which involved MIC or phosgene.


Improper design of chimneys (without consideration of weather conditions in all seasons) Improper design and maintenance of safety equipment. Not following safety regulations as that followed by UCC plants in USA. Decision to neglect a flare system in need of repair. Inadequate emergency planning and community awareness. Lack of awareness of the potential impact of MIC on the community by the people operating the plant. Inadequate community planning, allowing a large population to live near a hazardous manufacturing plant.

The reaction involved two reactants, methyl isocyanate (MIC) and alpha naphthol. The process begins with a mixture of carbon monoxide and chlorine to form phosgene. Phosgene is then combined with monomethylamine to form MIC. MIC is further mixed with naphthol to produce the end product carbaryl.

Basic Green Chemistry Principles

These principles would have averted the disaster. Eliminate or reduce the production of Hazardous chemicals. Hazardous chemicals produced should not be stored and should be consumed in the course of the reaction. The inventory of Hazardous chemicals if inevitable should be of many small containers and not of one large container.

Alternate Chemistry (suggested solution)

Alpha Napthol on carbonyl group addition followed by reaction with methyl amine would eventually gives carbaryl. This process does not generate or require handling the of Phosgene. This process does not require storage of MIC. Inherently safe process.

Who owns Responsibility

Introduced such a dangerous and complex modern pesticide technology into a country knowing well that it had a highly unskilled workforce and a largely illiterate population. The American managers regularly reviewed the reports from the Indian company , controlled annual budgets , set major policies and issued technical directives for operating and maintaining the plant.They had the moral responsibility to ensure that the policies and directives were being implemented.

Didnt maintain skilled operators due to staffing policy. Plant maintenance was insufficient. Complied to fairly low safety standards Didnt train the workers or educate them about the hazardous nature of the plant. Didnt bother to move the illiterate squatters who lived in a proximity to the plant even though it was illegal. Failed to correct the major flaws in safety equipment and procedures found by the engineers sent by the parent company.

The workers at the Bhopal Plant

Many were illiterate and unaware of the danger. 70% of the workers were fined after they refused to deviate from the safety guidelines after the cost cutting measures were taken. Some skilled operators found out problems and left. They did internal whistle blowing while leaving but could have done external whistle blowing.

It was the most responsible of all the parties involved. It set lax laws allowing low standards for environmental equipment and workplace protection It didnt bother to check if the safety standards set by the parent company are being implemented in the plant In spite of warnings, the state officials asked the company to remain operational to avoid additional expenses.

The Squatters
Though they had illegally set up the houses near the factory, most of them were poor and illiterate and were not aware of the danger and thought the factory made healthy medicines for Plants

The Bhopal gas tragedy could have been averted. There were lapses on part of the government and UCC. The actual reason for the tragedy is contrary to popular belief. An alternate way to produce carbaryl was suggested. Design of Inherently safer process was required.