Gassing the truth

More than a decade after the Bhopal gas disaster, the data collected from those exposed to the gas remains shrouded in mystery

Published: Sunday 15 September 1996

the Indian Council of Medical Research (icmr), the government agency which carried out the investigations into the 1984 gas tragedy, resolutely clings on to the results. After the completion of their studies at Bhopal in 1994, the icmr brought back all the data painstakingly collected over the past nine years. Twenty-six epidemiological studies examining the effect of the gas on those exposed had been carried out. The medical personnel involved in the studies do not possess a shred of evidence as yet as to the effects of the gas. In other words, the world will have to accept the final findings of the icmr, as and when they are released.

The gas tragedy occurred on the night of December 2-3, 1984, when 40 tonnes of methyl isocynate (mic) escaped into the night skies from the Union Carbide plant, following the entry of a large quantity of water into storage tank number 610. As a result, there was a tremendous increase in temperature and pressure in the tank, and mic with hydrogen cyanide and other products of the reaction leaked out. Although senior factory officials were aware of the pressure build-up, the siren was sounded only an hour after the leak. Six lakh people were affected and till date, the official death toll stands at 10,000. A draft of the consolidated icmr report, 1992, available with Down To Earth indicates that the toxins had caused damage to the lungs, brain, kidneys, muscles and the gastro-intestinal, reproductive and immune systems. Also, chromosomal aberrations were noticed in a large number of people.

"The ministry of petroleum and chemicals had issued a ban on disclosing the findings of these studies," states A K Prabhakar of the icmr. "The ban has just been lifted and we are in the process of compiling details of the studies which we hope to release in a few month time." But amazingly, officials of the department of petroleum and chemicals are unaware of both the ban and its removal.

Social activists and workers at Bhopal believe that the icmr studies would underestimate exposure-related damages. They believe that a toned down version of the results would be presented to favour Union Carbide. "They must make public all medical and scientific information," states Sathinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. M P Dwivedi, former director of the Bhopal Gas Disaster Research Centre, Bhopal - which carried out the studies for icmr - states that the services of several Bhopal-based medical professionals were sought for the 26 studies. "When the icmr left, they took with them all the studies and findings. This included all computers, discs and floppies that were used to store information."

"Such accidents, although horrifying in proportion, provide an unparalleled opportunity for the scientific community to study the effects of industrial gases on humans," says another doctor involved in the studies. "A Japanese university had offered to carry out long-term epidemiological studies on the gas-affected persons. But the icmr would have nothing to do with it, and an impartial study of the gas was lost."

The icmr's studies seem to raise more uncomfortable questions than provide answers. Where was the need for such secrecy? Why are matters related to public health being treated like state secrets? Had the results of these findings been made public, would not the treatment of those affected be easier? And most importantly, does not the Indian public have the right to know what an industrial disaster could do to the lives of people? And in all probability, as in this case, generations of them?

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