The night of December 2, 1984, marked one of the most devastating human disasters in recorded history when the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide factory released a deadly gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC). The impact was so catastrophic that it appeared as though the entire city of Bhopal had been turned into a gas chamber. Despite prior warnings, the tragic loss of innocent lives occurred due to the factory management’s negligence, making the Bhopal gas tragedy the worst industrial disaster in the world’s history.
Early Warnings Ignored
This sad story begins in 1969 when Union Carbide set up a factory to make a pesticide called Sevin using a substance called methyl isocyanate. In 1976, workers in Bhopal, where the factory was located, started worrying about pollution from the factory. Then, a terrible thing happened when one worker breathed in poisonous gas and died quickly. A reporter started looking into what happened and wrote about it in the local newspaper, warning people about the danger.
About two years before the terrible event, in 1983 and 1984, about 45 workers got sick and had to go to the hospital because they were exposed to dangerous gases like phosgene, carbon tetrachloride, methyl isocyanate, and monomethylamine.
Regulatory Failures and Safety Violations
The rules said that one tank in the factory should have no more than 30 tonnes of liquid MIC, but this tank had 42 tonnes in it. So, Union Carbide stopped making methyl isocyanate in Bhopal for a while to fix things. They tried to fix the broken tank on December 1, but it didn’t work. By that time, many of the safety systems for methyl isocyanate had gotten worse.
On the evening of December 2, water got into the broken tank, and that caused a chemical reaction.
As a result of this water infiltration, tank pressure increased significantly by nightfall. By midnight, individuals residing in areas with MIC gas started experiencing its effects. A critical decision to contain the leak was needed within minutes, as around 30 tons of MIC dispersed into the atmosphere within an hour. Bhopal residents became aware of the gas leak upon contact.
The Tragic Aftermath
The medical community struggled to provide proper treatment for the victims, and more than 15,000 people lost their lives due to the methyl isocyanate gas leak. Millions suffered, with stillbirths tripling and neonatal deaths doubling. Even trees and animals wilted due to the gas.
The aftermath of the tragedy was a haunting scene, with swollen animal carcasses requiring disposal while people desperately ran for their lives. Those vomiting filled the streets, and the entire city appeared to be a cremation ground. India now observes National Pollution Control Day on December 2 each year, also known as National Pollution Prevention Day and Bhopal Gas Tragedy Day. This day raises awareness about pollution control and industrial disasters while honoring the memory of the Bhopal gas tragedy victims in 1984.
The Pursuit of Justice
Warren Anderson, the Chief Managing Officer of Union Carbide at the time, was the main accused in the tragedy. He left India and never returned, passing away in the United States in 2014. Methyl isocyanate, a colorless liquid used in pesticide production, was the lethal gas responsible for the disaster.