Ten winters since methyl isocyanate exhaled history's deadliest industrial disaster on Bhopal, action on toxicity remains agonisingly inadequate. India needs the technical knowledge of the Western world. Union Carbide recently made available its vast scientific resources to help build a major chemical and plastic plant
The poison piles up
In 1961, this promise came with the Union Carbide Corp (UCC) visiting card. The small print added -- A hand in things to come. On December 3, 1984, UCC showed its hand. Thousands died and continue to die in well-documented agony and tens of thousands were maimed and traumatised for life when methyl isocyanate leaked in the dead of the night from Carbide's Bhopal plant. It took only a few horror-filled hours to translate hypothesis to the reality of chemical disasters. No one had thought that things could get so bad.
Since then, the world of non-military chemicals has existed in the grey area between "necessity" and toxicity. The plethora of dos and don'ts, the rising graph of contraindications, and the disconcerting appetite for more chemicals, is both a cause and reflection of increasingly difficult solutions to increasingly difficult problems. In India, the race to introduce millions to a chemical age has left the sober counsels of safety in a crumpled wad on the wayside. It's as if Bhopal never happened.
Chemicals are making increasing inroads into people's lives -- from things as ostensibly benign as lipsticks and fluorescent lamps to danger signals like fertilisers and preservatives. Only a minuscule proportion of the chemicals the world manufactures is sold directly in the market, the main chunk, of which we remain blissfully ignorant, going into the making of consumer products.
The Indian chemical industry is the 2nd largest in the world, brewing more than 102 million tonnes of chemicals every year. Unofficial estimates say that there are over 110,000 chemicals being marketed by companies making similar idyllic promises like UCC did 33 years ago.
The industry here is also rather ignorant of the properties and noxious potential of the chemicals it produces in increasing quantities. For one, the national consumption of fertilisers went up to 12 million tonnes in 1992 from 223,000 tonnes in 1959; the average production capacity of ammonia went up to 1,500 tonnes from 200 tonnes a day over the same period; the production target for phosphorous pentoxide has been set up at 5 million tonnes, thrice up from the current 1.5 million tonnes. The catch: the toxicity of over 60 per cent of the chemicals that go into the making of fertilisers is unknown.
The rocketing production graphs have created a huge toxic cache in the country, dwarfing the pileup of 1984. Bhopal multiplies as regions like the Ahmedabad-Vapi belt in Gujarat (textiles and basic chemicals), Kota in Rajasthan (dyeing), and Thane-Kalyan in Maharashtra (mostly chemicals for drugs and pigments) turn into the toxic loci of the country. The much-applauded commercial successes of these regions has a dark underside that has swollen over the years, smothering contrary information and a lot of commonsense.
In terms of more information and action on the safe handling and storage of hazardous chemicals, not much seem to have changed since life went toxic in Bhopal. According to officials at the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF), over 300 new chemical compounds join the Indian factory inventories every year. Contrast this with the global testing facilities capable of scanning a mere 500 chemicals a year. Add to it the diversion of hazardous substances to the Third World as laws become more stringent in the West and the Third World looks for easy money. You have a lethal concoction. Behind it all, what is at stake is the US$ 200 billion chemical industry in the US and Europe, a giant jacked on his own petard and in need of succour from the rest of the world.
Ram S Hamsagar, a chemical expert with the Delhi-based Hazard Management Group, says, "Ignorance about the exact characteristics of a chemical and its behaviour in varying climactic and production conditions is one of the reasons why fears of disasters cannot be dismissed. Modernisation continues to be perceived merely in the limited context of the increasing availability of modern chemicals."
Ann Leonard of the Greenpeace Toxic Waste Project says, "All over the world, largescale production of chemicals has been achieved. But the effort to determine the toxicity of the chemicals has been lacklustre. This is the prime reason why the production centres of these chemicals and the ones using them are ticking disasters." The global chemical industry is hardly expected to spend billions on developing new chemicals and then get the product banned after testing, she adds.
Following the Bhopal disaster, efforts to develop testing methods and generate more data on chemicals have become virtually mandatory all over the world. Says S P Chandak, director (pollution control) of the National Productivity Council (NPC), "The concept of Threshold Limit Value (TLV) lies at the heart of the term 'toxicity'. TLV is the permissible level of a particular chemical beyond which it can be lethal or harmful to human health and environment."
But the TLVs of more than 80 per cent of the chemicals being marketed is not known to the developing world. Countries like India have failed to create even the semblance of a database to fight rising toxicity levels: of the 3,350 chemical compounds, for instance, used in the pesticide sector alone, the toxicity of only 5 per cent is known. In cosmetics, toxicity levels are known for a mere 12 per cent of the 3,410 chemicals that are in use. Overall, toxicity levels of 32,400 chemicals out of 36,000 is still unknown!
Realising the importance of chemical risks, the MEF came up with 2 vital documents after 1984 -- Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals (1989) and Manual on Emergency Preparedness for Chemical Hazards (1992). But for people like Harsh Jetliey of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), most resolutions after Bhopal evaporated in the ensuing lull. Jetliey maintains, "The kind of mobilisation -- in terms of experts, machinery, time, and most important, money -- required to identify toxicity were never received."
Chandak adds, "Although some data is available on chemicals themselves, nothing exists as far as the toxicity of a particular chemical at the time of production is concerned. This is what happened during the recent leak in Kardampuri in Delhi, where the gas emitted due to burning could not be identified even though the elements involved were detected" (see Down To Earth, November 30, 1994).
Agencies like the Industrial Toxicity Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow, which were created in Bhopal's aftermath, along with the then existing National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) at Pune, the National Institute for Occupational Hazards and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) at Delhi, and the state pollution control boards (SPCBs), remained mired in controversy in the post-Bhopal phase.
|Aldrin||Toxic by ingection, inhalation and skin absorption by 1-3 gms. Carcinogenic by nature|
|Acrylonitrile||Shallow respiration and convulsions|
|Bidrin||Highly toxic insecticide, Can be absorbed through inhalation, skin|
|Binapacryl||Highly toxic insecticides, fingicides, causes acute vomiting and hypernoea|
|Carbaryl||Highly toxic insecticides|
|Chlordane||Stomach and contact poison, readily absorbed by the skin causing neurological disorders in both humans and animals|
|Cryolite||Highly toxic for all animals. Even 2-3 ppm level exposure can cause mottling of teeth|
|Cyanides||Cause death through tissue oxidation and asphyxia|
|Mercaptans||Highly offensive ordour causing acute nausea and headches|
|Melathion||Highly toxic insecticide and rodenticide. In low doses, causes acute skin irritation|
|Paraphion||Absorption of more than 12 mg has proved fatal|
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