In 1969, Union Carbide built a plant in Bhopal to produce carbaryl, a pesticide that it sold under the brand name Sevin, and for which methyl isocyanate (MIC) was a key component. MIC is a highly toxic irritant, and is extremely hazardous to humans. Other manufacturers eventually switched to other processes to produce carbaryl that did not require the use of the highly dangerous MIC. Not so Union Carbide, which made the business decision to stick with MIC at its Bhopal plant because it was cheaper.
Union Carbide also cut corners in the maintenance of the MIC storage tanks and pipes at the Bhopal plant in order to save money. There were numerous leaks over the years, in which dozens of workers were killed or injured. By early December, 1984, the plant was a disaster waiting to happen. Pipes and valves were corroded, one of three MIC storage tanks was out of commission, most safety systems were out of order, and special vents to scrub poison gasses did not work.
2. A Plucky Journalist Raised the Alarm for Years, but Was Ignored
Indian journalist Rajkumar Keswani began to investigate the safety protocols and procedures at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant in 1981, after a friend died there in an industrial accident. Helped by whistle blowers, he examined that and earlier mishaps, and discovered that things were even worse than they looked. There had numerous screw-ups in which only dumb luck averted catastrophe. In one incident, a gas leak forced thousands of nearby residents to flee their homes in terror. In an internal telex exchange, Union Carbide’s Indian manager sought better pipe coating from the parent company in America. In one of the more evil replies in corporate history, he was told that it would be too expensive.
After a nine-month investigation, Keswani published the first of a series of newspaper articles that ran from 1982 to 1984. In them, he detailed dismal safety standards at the plant, and raised the alarm about a potential catastrophe. With headlines such as “Bhopal Sitting on the Brink of a Volcano“; “Save Please, Save this City“; and “If You Don’t Understand, You All Shall be Wiped Out“, Keswani’s articles left little doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, like a modern Cassandra, his warnings were ignored. Then, on the night of December 2nd, 1984, the catastrophe he had spent years warning about occurred.
1. A Business Decision to Skimp on Safety to Cut Costs Exposed 600,000 People to Poison Gas
The predictable catastrophe at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant began at around 11PM on December 2nd, 1984. Employees noticed that pressure inside one of the MIC tanks had increased from the normal 2 psi to 10 psi. Half an hour later, the effects of gas leakage were detected. At 11:45, a leaking pipe was spotted. In the meantime, the pressure in the MIC tank continued to rise. By 12:40AM, it had reached 55 psi, and began to vent toxic gas into the atmosphere. Within two hours, over 40 tons of MIC had been released, and were blown into Bhopal.
The methyl isocyanate stayed low to the ground, burned the eyes of victims, made them nauseous, and killed many. Corporate callousness and the business decision to skimp on safety resulted in about 600,000 people harmed by MIC. 8000 perished within two weeks, and another 8000 died later. About 40,000 suffered serious injuries, and 4000 were permanently disabled. In 1989, Union Carbide paid the equivalent of U$ 875 million in 2021 dollars to settle litigation. It was less than U$ 1500 per victim, or less than $15,000 for each of those seriously injured, permanently disabled, or killed.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading