Methylisocyanate and the tragedy of Bhopal

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Fire a blowtorch at my eyes, pour acid down my throat. Strip the tissue from my lungs. Drown me in my own blood. Choke my baby to death in front of me. Show me her struggles as she dies. Cripple my children. Let pain be their daily and only playmate. Spare me nothing. Wreck my health so I can no longer feed my family. Watch us starve. Say it's nothing to do with you. Don't ever say sorry. Poison our water. Cause monsters to be born amongst us. Make us curse God. Stunt our living children's growth. For seventeen years ignore our cries. Teach me that my rage is as useless as my tears. Prove to me beyond all doubt that there is no justice in the world. You are a wealthy American Corporation and I am a gas victim of Bhopal.4

This moving poem is by a survivor of the terrible industrial accident in the Indian city of Bhopal in December 1984. Just after midnight on 2 December 1984, a large cloud of vapour leaked from a factory in Bhopal, spreading out over a nearby area of shanty town, where thousands of inhabitants were sleeping. In all, between 30 and 40 tonnes of this toxic chemical were released. Many died of asphyxiation as the highly irritant gas damaged their lungs, causing fluid to accumulate, which effectively drowned them. Others survived the initial onslaught of the vapour but succumbed later to the combined effects of damage to the lung and to other organs (see box). Those who survived did not necessarily recover completely, as they continued to suffer from lung disease and blindness or poor eyesight, as well as impaired immune systems and reproductive problems. The irritant nature of the chemical meant that it attacked membranes in the lungs and eyes and the skin.

What of the death toll? The most conservative estimates were 3,000 at the time, with about 200,000 injured. More recent estimates suggest that 16,000 people may have died as a result of the accident. How did it happen? The factory, which was owned by the American Union Carbide company, was making Sevin, or carbaryl, an insecticide. Methylisocyanate was one of the components of the synthesis, of which a large amount was stored in a tank. It seems that water was able to enter the tank via a newly fitted pipe because of a faulty valve. The water caused a reaction when it mixed with the methylisocyanate, producing heat, which raised the temperature to such an extent that the liquid chemical boiled and was converted into a gas, which overwhelmed the containment system. It seems there was no trap to contain the excess, no flare system, and the scrubber system was overloaded. It was clear that the safety systems were inadequate.

The company initially claimed that sabotage was to blame, but no evidence of this has appeared; they also maintained that the Indian subsidiary was wholly responsible for the plant, but this is contested. There is little doubt that the plant design was faulty, and inadequate to contain a runaway reaction, as suggested by scientists and engineers. Even before the event the company's own engineers concluded that 'a real potential for a serious incident exists'5 in the methylisocyanate tank at its West Virginia plant.

The story of this, the world's worst chemical disaster, is salutory: it occurred only relatively recently and demonstrates the dangers of chemical plants when management, local or distant, takes a cavalier attitude towards safety and shows a lack of respect for and knowledge of the chemicals they are using and making. It is a tragedy because such events could so easily be averted. In some respects the event in Bhopal was similar to that at Seveso, in that a process in a factory went wrong and released a chemical into the surrounding area at a time when few if any workers were around to react to the emergency. In Bhopal, however, the chemical had devastating immediate and lasting consequences for the local population. This was for two reasons: first, the quantity released was very large and, secondly, the factory was sited close to an area where a large number of people were living. One could argue that no chemical plant should be sited near urban population centres. When large quantities of toxic chemicals are stored or used there must be adequate safety systems in place to deal with them. Accidents will always happen, but their impact could at least be minimized.

A second lesson from the disaster is that toxicological knowledge of the chemical would have helped in the treatment of the victims. There was insufficient knowledge of the toxic effects and, while there is no true antidote, the lack of knowledge about the chemical meant that victims were treated inappropriately by some local medical centres who thought they had been poisoned with cyanide.6 Data from experimental studies might have helped both in the treatment and the appreciation of the hazardous nature of this chemical. Studies in experimental animals after the event showed that even low levels of the vapour were extremely irritating to the respiratory systems in mice. Other studies in animals revealed that the chemical could stimulate the immune system, as it had done in the human victims. The long-term effects of methylisocyanate have yet to be fully determined.

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