The poison piles up

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

By Rahul Shrivastava
Published: Saturday 31 December 1994

The poison piles up

Arm-deep in poison: who ensure 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.

Thus far and no further
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.

Chemicals Effects
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

According the Chandak, "The fault lies not with the institutions per se, but their dependence on state funds, which has been dwindling fast in the past few years." S Mashelkar, director, NCL, concurs: "Funds are hard to get. Although regulations were formulated on the testing and analysis of the chemicals, the financial mechanism was never worked out." A senior chemical engineer with the ITRC adds, "The amount of chemicals coming into the market is mindboggling. Institutes like the ITRC do not have that kind of infrastructure to handle the quantum."

Unknown dangers
The problem also lies with the categorisation of what is toxic. While the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (1989) lists 45 categories of non-radioactive substances as hazardous, the MEF has listed only 23. Says Hamsagar, "The Indian manufacturers are making the most of the exemptions they enjoy in the country. It is also alarming that the industrialised countries are providing technologies and assistance to develop chemicals of unknown toxicity."

Then there is the deadly disparity between the 2 legal tools -- the Factories Act of 1987 and the Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986. The toxicity inside an industrial unit is the business of the Factories Act and is monitored by factory inspectors. The toxicity outside the premises, on the other hand, is monitored by the SPCBs by powers conferred by the EPA. "The factory inspectors in most industrial areas are over-burdened, lacking both the motivation and knowledge on toxicity," Jetliey points out.

In the absence of legal teeth and scarcity of research funds, toxic chemicals continue to cause minor tragedies all over the country. The proposed Poison Control Centre, supposed to take care of these problems, remains on paper. Predictably, there have been no inventories taken of the chemicals being used by the industries. Delhi, for instance, has over 93,000 industrial units, out of which less than 500 have environmental clearance from the government. The same holds true for most of the other industrial areas in the country. This fact alone has reduced the logic of not allowing an industry to operate without an environmental clearance to a farce.

Subir Gupta, a chemical engineer with the Delhi branch of the Tata Risk Management (TRM), says, "The inaccessibility of information on the toxic character of the chemicals is true to an large extent in the small and medium sectors. With the large industrial houses, particularly the multinationals, the problem is different. They have access to the best data and can afford the best of the studies. But the catch is that the toxicity reports are never released." Harsh Jetliey agrees: "The environment impact assessment reports are never made public. For instance, following the Bhopal tragedy, the MEF identified several high risk regions in the country, but nobody has any inkling what these regions are."

The manual of the International Labour Organization (ILO) makes it mandatory to have chemical safety datasheets for hazardous chemicals, giving identity, name of supplier, classification, hazards, safety precautions and emergency procedures. But this is observed more in the breach by both Indian and foreign suppliers. Big business has a vested interest in keeping damaging information under wraps. Says Sathyamala, a medical practitioner actively involved with the Bhopal agitation, "The companies fear to release the reports as the will be an uproar among the workers and those living around the factory site."

A senior CPCB scientist, however, contends that the problem lies not with the availability of data but in the manner in which it is used. "The big industrial houses have information about the chemicals and the TLVs, which does not mean that they see to it that exposure is limited according to specifications." Subir Gupta confirms, "We studied the Thane-Belapur industrial estates in Bombay. The results clearly depicted that information availability is not totally linked to or responsible for the high toxicity levels inside factories."

Closely linked to the knowledge of the chemical character is the risk involved in any operation using them. Says Chandak, "During planning stages, the entrepreneur or the company have very little knowledge of the chemicals they are going to produce and use. When they come to know it, their commitment to the project precludes any revealing of toxicity levels."

B K Shukla, former member of the Rajasthan Pollution Control Board, says, "Corporations generally tend to deliberately underestimate the inherent hazardous nature of their operations and the chemicals as workers might demand hazard allowance. This downplaying also translates into lower premiums on life insurance for the workers." Subir Gupta says, "During our survey of the concentration of chemical units around Bombay, it was found that not only the small scale operators failed on risk management criteria, but even multinational giants like Bayer, BASF, Colorchem and NOCIL, which form the backbone of the core chemicals production, had little to show."

M S Gupta, former member of the National Safety Council, explains, "If there has been no accident in any area in the last 40 years, people tend to dismiss the chances of one occurring. Thus, despite the introduction of ever new chemicals, no safety measures are taken. This is exactly what happened at the Sriram factory in Delhi in 1985." The management of the Sriram unit was more bothered about the chlorine stored in tanks, never giving a thought to oleum stores. Thus, it was caught napping when the oleum leaked.

MEF has set limits to which chemicals can be stored inside factory premises under the Manufacture, Import and Handling of Hazardous Substances Act of 1989. But Subir Gupta maintains that nobody follows these guidelines. An unit in the Nagloi area of Delhi, for instance, was recently found to be storing 3 times the amount of cadmium it was entitled to store.

Also inherent in risk management techniques is the level of redundancy (a multiple tier of safety systems to cover operational failures) of safety systems. While the developed countries are going in for 4 to 5 levels of redundancy, in India, the redundancy never exceeds the 2nd level even in the big units. The recently conducted TRM survey in Thane revealed the redundancy level in 2 plants run by multinational corporations was below 2 and was zero in many medium and small scale units.

Right to information
Incomplete risk analyses are compounded by inappropriate installation of safety devices. The senior CPCB scientist says, "Most of the plants are working in absolute flaunting of the laws laid down by MEF, the Factories Act and the clauses laid down by the ILO." Experts feel that with risk management remaining primitive, the chances of disasters of higher magnitudes have increased manifold. According to Pramathesh Kaistha of the ILO, "There are certain responsibilities of the authorities, business houses and the workers. The most important of these is the right to information. The US introduced such a measure after the Bhopal disaster, but India is nowhere close to it."

Untrained workers, blissfully ignorant of what they are handling in their factories, face personal risks, on the one hand, and are more likely to cause accidents, on the other, says Arun Kumar Daur of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha: not only are there more first generation users of modern chemicals; those who work in those units are new to them. Jetliey says, "Occupational hazards have increased because the number of toxic chemicals being used has increased, whereas the awareness level remains abysmally low."

Recently, workers at the Bombay plant of Hindustan Lever developed rashes on their feet after they started using working shoes made of particular kind of rubber. Pathological reports revealed that carcinogenic chemical were used to manufacture the shoes. Similarly, in an unit in Thane, workers who were washing their hands with a particular kind of detergent were diagnosed with lesser sperm counts.

Jetliey and Sathyamala contend that the investment in generation of chemicals is not matched by a similar investment in the research of toxicity and occupational hazards. But then, in the Third World, lives come cheaper than the chemicals that kill them.

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