The Bhopal Legacy: An Interview with Dr. Rosalie Bertell
Dr. Rosalie Bertell is president of the Toronto-based International Institute of Concern for Public Health. She has a doctorate in biometry, and has researched cancer and birth defects, with specific emphasis on environmental causes, since 1966.
Dr. Bertell is a 1986 winner of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize, and a 1993 UN Environmental Program Global 500 laureate. She recently chaired the International Medical Commission Chernobyl, and directed the International Medical Commission Bhopal.
Multinational Monitor: What is the International Medical Commission Bhopal?
Rosalie Bertell: When the Permanent People's Tribunal was held in Bhopal in October 1993, it recommended bringing in a team of physicians to investigate the problems that the survivors of Bhopal were reporting, especially things like their medical care, the treatment they were getting, the fairness of compensation.
With the assistance of activist groups in Bhopal, London and New York, I organized the Commission. I sent out about 60 invitations to universities and research establishments, primarily to physicians who had shown interest in environmental health. More than 30 said they would be willing to go. We chose 13 physicians from 11 different countries and with different expertise. Each one served without pay, other than travel costs and expenses. We went to Bhopal in January 1994.
MM: What did you conclude about the lingering health effects of the Union Carbide gas leak?
Bertell: We did an epidemiological survey to find out what illnesses the people had 10 years after the disaster, that were likely to be connected to the disaster. We looked for illnesses where there is a gradation of effect, so that the effect is higher as you get closer to the factory.
We found that the respiratory illness was still showing a graded effect. There was neurotoxicological damage, not previously reported, that was also showing a trend with distance. The people were still suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The government has never connected post-traumatic stress syndrome to the disaster, but it is obvious; people were still having nightmares and breaking out in sweats and were really traumatized even 10 years after the disaster. The other thing that was related to distance was damage to cornea of the eye. There were other secondary effects, but those were the most prominent ones.
MM: What does that mix of problems mean for people's day-to-day lives?
Bertell: It means permanent disability.
Often the injured person was the person who was earning money for a family, and they can't earn money like they did before. They might be blind, or they might be suffering from intermittent blindness.
Some of the victims' medical costs are taken care of by the government. But the delivery system is so poor that if people are really sick, they go to private physicians, whom they have to pay. Out of the little money they have, they are overpaying for medical care, they are paying for medicines because they can't always get them for free - the lines are too long at the hospital, or the supply runs out.
The people are still going to hospital emergency rooms with their illnesses, and doctors are seeing as many as 1,500 patients a day, which is ridiculous. The doctors don't have continuity of medical records, they don't have a record of which medicines the victims have taken and which ones are effective and which ones are not effective.
So the whole situation is still disastrous. The needs of the people have not been met.
MM: How many people are suffering from the range of problems you described?
Bertell: The death count is probably a little over 10,000 now. The number that were exposed originally was probably 500,000.
We looked at adults, between age 18 and 60, and estimated that there are about 50,000 who are permanently damaged. What was startling was that the younger adults, those between 18 and 35, showed more damage than those over 35. …