Magazine article New Internationalist

Night of the Gas: It's 18 Years since the World's Worst Industrial Accident at a Transnational Corporation's Pesticide Plant in Bhopal, India - but the Poor Are Being Poisoned by It to This Day. Meanwhile the Indian Government Is Sitting on Funds Intended for Compensation and Clean-Up. Luke David Tells a Shameful Tale

Magazine article New Internationalist

Night of the Gas: It's 18 Years since the World's Worst Industrial Accident at a Transnational Corporation's Pesticide Plant in Bhopal, India - but the Poor Are Being Poisoned by It to This Day. Meanwhile the Indian Government Is Sitting on Funds Intended for Compensation and Clean-Up. Luke David Tells a Shameful Tale

Article excerpt

Most people were at home sleeping when the tank burst out of the earth and stood shuddering on its end, emitting a stream of deadly fumes into the night. The gases came into their houses without warning. They woke choking, their eyes and mouths burning. Nobody knew what had happened. Then came shouts of 'gas!' and 'run away!' People tumbled out of their houses but the gas was waiting for them. It rolled in thick clouds along the narrow lanes, which in some places were little more than a metre wide. The street lamps shed a tobacco-brown light. No insects circled around them - they were already dead.

As families picked up their toddlers and fled, the alleys were filled with stampedes. Cows and dogs ran with their owners. People fell and were trampled. Children were wrenched from their mothers' arms and lost, never to be found.

It was 2 December 1984 and a pesticide factory owned by an American multinational - the Union Carbide Corporation - had leaked 27 tonnes of toxic chemicals into the slums of Bhopal, central India. Ignoring advice by its own experts, Union Carbide built the factory in the middle of densely populated neighbourhoods. In contravention of US safety standards, a huge quantity of lethal methylisocyanate (MIC) was stored on site. The tank holding the MIC was not kept, as the safety manual required, at zero degrees Celsius. The plant's safety systems were dismantled and not working. Water leaked into the giant MIC tank and set off a violent chemical reaction.

Nobody knows exactly how many died but we can form an idea from the 7,000 burial shrouds that were bought over the next three days. This number does not take into account the hundreds of people who were unaccounted for, or the families who had no-one left to bury or cremate them.

The death toll from long-term health problems now stands at 25,000 - and a further 25,000 people in the slums around the factory continue to be poisoned by the chemicals that have been left behind. Women in this community reach their menopause at 30. Children are born with deformities and girls do not menstruate until they are 18. Pigeon chests, webbed feet and growth retardation are frightening realities.

Great piles of chemicals litter the grounds of the former Union Carbide plant, leaching their deadly toxins into the water and poisoning people slowly. No birds sing inside the site, but children play there all the same, among some of the deadliest poisons in existence. Cows and goats graze on pasture contaminad by 26 years of chemical dumping.

Here and there lie piles of reddish-brown rocks, some the size of boulders. These are lumps of Sevin, which has a low ignition point. If it catches light it releases the same gas that killed so many in 1984. Over the last two years there have been several massive fires inside the plant's grounds and some of the Sevin has caught light. Last year fire swept over several hectares and damaged 22 houses in the neighbouring slums. Just as in the 1984 disaster, residents smelt 'burning chillies', their eyes and noses stung, their lungs burned. Some said they were unable to scream because they could only choke and cough.

This time nobody died - but the poor are being poisoned nonetheless. Each rainy season the abandoned chemicals - among them organophosphates and heavy metals - leach into the ground and contaminate the water. A report by Greenpeace International found mercury at between 20,000 and 6,000,000 times the expected levels all over the factory's grounds.

People who have moved into the surrounding slums years after the disaster have the same symptoms as the survivors of the tragedy of 1984. They complain of abdominal pain, skin lesions, dizziness, vomiting, constipation, indigestion and burning sensations in the chest and stomach. The majority of children in the worst-affected areas are born seriously underweight and weak, with discoloured skin. Women don't lactate properly and some stop completely within a month of giving birth. …

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