Technology out of Control

Article excerpt

Last December, a toxic cloud escaping from a Union Carbide pesticide plant brought death to at least 2,500 residents of the shantytowns crowding its edges. The alchemy that overnight transformed the Indian city of Bhopal into a gas chamber injured perhaps 200,000 and brought terror and suffering to hundreds of thousands more. From a count of burial shrouds sold and other indicators, some observers estimate the total killed at between 4,000 and 10,000. Exactly how many died we may never know.

Only weeks earlier in Mexico City an explosion of liquefied-gas tanks belonging to Pemex, the government oil corporation, killed at least 450 dwellers in nearby slums. The two disasters evoked memories of Seveso, Italy, where in 1976 the dioxin from an exploding chemical reactor hospitalized hundreds and contaminated many acres. In the United States the 1979 radiation leak from a nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island forced the evacuation of some 60,000 people in the surrounding areas. And the percolation into the soil of twenty-year-old lethal wastes stored in a corporate dump site brought ailments and anxiety to 1,200 residents of Niagara Falls, New York, rendering their modest homes in the Love Canal neighborhood uninhabitable.

Each time, the headlines suggest that the calamity is isolated, unique. The search for causes begins with human error and bureaucratic ineptitude and moves on to mechanical failure and inadequate design. The limited education and rote-learned skills of the workers at Bhopal, as well as the simplicity of the surrounding populace, experts assert, hinder the developing world's introduction to better living through chemistry.

Western pundits joined in the widespread lament over the deaths in India; some offered the consolation that the disaster might have been much worse. And, as one pointed out, "Progress has always involved a certain amount of trial and error." A historian of technology calculated that half of those killed at Bhopal "would not have been alive today if it were not for that plant and the modern health standards made possible by wide use of pesticides." Thus the dead at Bhopal could be regarded as a necessary human sacrifice to the gods of modernization. The Economist concluded, "Thousands will not have died in vain if multinationals now build safer plants, even when local government regulations discourage them from doing so."

The question asked in the United States was, Could it happen here? Unaccustomed to the spotlight, Union Carbide took the precaution of closing a much larger plant in Institute, West Virginia, which also stockpiled the chemical that escaped at Bhopal. Named methyl isocyanate (MIC), it is used in making the pesticides Temik (banned by a number of American communities) and Sevin. A congressional investigation of the plant, which is the only one of its kind in the country, found that twenty-eight accidental leaks (the figure was later raised to sixty-two) had occurred during the previous five years. All of them were minor, Union Carbide spokesmen assured the public, and "represented no threat to the local community." The plant was "absolutely safe." After another review of its records, the company announced that there had been 107 in-plant leaks of phosgene, which is poisonous and volatile, and twenty-two leaks of a mixture of phosgene and MIC, but not in illegal or harmful quantities. It also disclosed that only three months before the Bhopal tragedy there had been an internal safety warning about the storage of the unstable methyl isocyanate at Institute. The plant had no equipment for automatically detecting MIC leaks. Instead, its managers relied on "odor and/or eye irritation [of personnel]," although such sensitivity might not be apparent until safety levels had been exceeded. The plant was found unprepared to cope with a potential "runaway reaction" in time to prevent a major catastrophe.

The recommendations from corporate headquarters resulted in additional safety measures at Institute. …