Not learning from Bhopal

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 31 December 2009

It is 25 years of the Bhopal gas disasterthe night when chemicals spewed out of the Union Carbide factory to kill and maim thousands over generations. The question is if we have learnt from the disasterlearnt how to handle chemical accidents; to dispose of industrial toxic waste; to manage crucial medical relief, to give monetary compensation speedily and to establish the liability of pollutersso that accidents like this do not happen again.

I was in Bhopal when the city marked the anniversary of that night. An exhibition by Bhopal activists relived that night of horror. How people fell like flies, instantly dead, as the gas-laden air hit them; how thousands of animals lay rotting on the roads and how hospitals could not cope with the victims and how nobody (particularly the company) explained the ailments or the treatment. What is even worse is that parts of the city still live the horror. Activists say children born to gas victims are usually deformed and diseased. What is worse is that a stockpile of toxic chemicals remainsleaching into and contaminating the groundwater of new and old victims of the industrial disaster.

The question is why this continues to happen. The fact is we refuse to use credible and public science to guide policy. After the disaster, the Indian Council of Medical Research (icmr) was asked to study the short-term and long-term impacts of the chemicals. But in the early 1990s the government asked the institution to discontinue research, for no reason given. As a result, there is no epidemiological research on the victims old and new. Civil society groups working with victims say (and have published studies) on the increased incidence of mental and physical deformities among the gas affected populations. But as there is no empirical research by government institutions, the government can deny the problem exists. It is poverty they say. Nothing unusual. Criminal and irresponsible.

We stumbled on this denial game in another connected issuethe disposal of waste in the Union Carbide factory compound. For some years now groups working in Bhopal have raised concern that toxic contaminants remain in the factory. A case has been filed in the Jabalpur bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court to direct the government to remove the waste and to do this, quickly. For the past two years or so, the government, both Central and state, has been dealing rather unsuccessfully with the question of wastewill it be sent to a landfill, or will it be incinerated? But even as it muddles through this question and the stockpile of some 340 tonnes of stored waste sits in the abandoned factory, the government changes tack. It now says the waste is not toxic. It says the groundwater around the factory is not contaminated. Why? Because its scientific institutions say so. My colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment decided to investigate.

My colleagues first investigated what the factory was manufacturing and what were the processes it used. This gave them clues into what should be checked in the laboratory. Piecing together scanty information, they learnt that Union Carbide manufactured three kinds of pesticidescarbaryl (trade name Sevin); aldicarb (Temik) and a formulation of carbaryl and gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane (g-hch), sold under the trade name Sevidol. The company bought technical grade hch and after extraction of g- hch threw the waste with remaining isomers and lasting toxicity into the ground. They also looked at the derivates of the chemicals; the solvents used, like chlorinated benzene and heavy metals like mercury used us sealants.

With this information, we sought permission to collect samples. We got it readily from the Union environment minister and officials of the pollution control board went with my colleagues to the factory. Chandra Bhushan who directed this research says he was shocked to see traces of mercury visible in parts of the factory. He then went to various sites around the factory, collecting groundwater samples: to know if the pollution had spread.

The results were startling. We found the same chemicals in the soil and water of the factoryat unacceptably high levels; we found the same in groundwater almost 3 km from the city, at lower levels but signifying chronic toxicitylong-term exposure leading to deadly diseases, particularly in an already immuno-suppressed poor population of gas victims. Also, the task of remediation is massivenot just the stored waste but the soil and water will need to be cleaned.

But science is malleable. Studies used by state government say that there is no or negligible danger; these discussed only acute toxicitythe amount a human being would need to eat to die. Then, the studies, which showed no contamination of groundwater, did not even check for the pesticides being produced by the factory. They did not find, because they did not check for what needed to be found. Confusion and denial is the name of the game.

The victims are forgotten till the next anniversary comes along.

Sunita Narain

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