Bhopal's Legacy: New Vigilance in the Chemical Industry

By Sutcliffe, Virginia | Occupational Hazards, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Bhopal's Legacy: New Vigilance in the Chemical Industry


Sutcliffe, Virginia, Occupational Hazards


An immense human tragedy changes the face of chemical safety in the 1980s and beyond.

Chemical industry experts consider the tragic events of 14-years ago in Bhopal to be the biggest wake-up call of all time. Chemical companies undertook a massive reexamination of their safety practices when a Union Carbide pesticide producing plant emitted a highly toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC) onto the densely populated region of Bhopal in central India.

In the early morning of Dec. 3, 1984, over 40 tons of MIC and other lethal gases including hydrogen cyanide, leaked into the northern end of Bhopal killing over 3,000 people in its immediate aftermath.

The cloud was formed by a reaction between MIC, a chemical intermediate used in the manufacture of pesticides, and a couple hundred gallons of water.

After the accident, it was discovered that the protective equipment which could have halted the impending disaster was not in full working order: The refrigeration system that should have cooled the storage tank was shut down, the scrubbing system that should have absorbed the vapor was not immediately available and the flare system that would have burned any vapor that got past the scrubbing system was out of order.

A Union Carbide investigation concluded that a disgruntled worker, as an act of sabotage, was responsible for introducing water into a tank containing MIC. Other experts and the Indian government blamed poor process design and lack of maintenance for the accident.

The International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB), composed of 15 professionals from 11 countries and various areas of expertise, visited Bhopal in January 1984. As a result of the epidemiological and clinical studies IMCB conducted, it estimated as many as 50,000 survivors may still be suffering from partial or total disability resulting from the disaster.

In February 1989, the Supreme Court of India directed Union Carbide Corp. and Union Carbide India Ltd., who owned and operated the Bhopal plant, to pay $470 million to the Indian government for the victims.

Bhopal as a Benchmark

Major changes in safety legislation often arise out of tragedy and Bhopal was no exception. In the United States, Bhopal was the impetus for the passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), labeled "Bhopal legislation" in 1986. The law was designed to inform American communities about the potential chemical dangers they faced, and to bolster the industry's precautions against accidental chemical releases.

In addition, immediately following Bhopal, the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) started an outreach program called Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER). CAER was a two-part program that made communities more aware of the chemical industry and also encouraged chemical companies to look carefully at their emergency response systems and make sure they were up to date.

Tom Gilroy, spokesperson for CMA, said that before CAER, communities looked at the chemical plant as the place behind the fence that made something but communities were not sure what kinds of products companies were making.

"CAER called for companies to go out into the communities and say, 'Hey, we have been here for 75 years and nothing has ever happened, hopefully nothing ever will, but let us tell you what we make, how we make it and what we do to prevent accidents. Let us work together to be even safer,'" said Gilroy.

In 1986, CAER was incorporated into a broader set of codes of practice called "Responsible Care." Begun in Canada and now established in over 60 countries, the Responsible Care initiative is built around 10 Guiding Principles and six Codes of Management Processes.

CMA member companies must comply with these codes that include: improving chemical processes; strengthening dialogue with employees, plant committees and the public; and reducing wastes, accidents and emissions. …

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