Bhopal: The Second Tragedy

The Second Tragedy

When the Independent speaks of "rape", the Guardian of "disgrace" and Jon Snow of "a crime against humanity", they are not talking about THAT NIGHT - but of what has happened since to those who survived it. Twenty-five years after the disaster, Bhopal remains a humanitarian disaster. Their breathless bodies no longer able to push handcarts and lift heavy loads, thousands have fallen into destitution and their families have learned the lessons of the abyss, binding cloths round their middles to give an illusion of fullness, giving children unable to sleep from hunger water to fill their empty bellies.

Abandoned Toxic Chemicals
Abandoned Toxic Chemicals at the Dow/Carbide Factory at Bhopal (2002)
(Photo Credits: Maude Dorr, Amnesty International Report [pdf])

The factory, which killed so many, lies empty now, the weather battering at it. Union Carbide left without cleaning it up. Tanks full of toxic chemicals have corroded and burst, dumping their contents onto the ground. Winds batter at loose metal sheets and gradually the buildings come apart. Worst of all, twenty-five monsoons (three months of heavy rain each year) have washed the toxins Carbide left behind deep into the soil, poisoning the drinking water of the same people Carbide gassed 25 years ago.

According to former workers of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, while the factory was in operation, massive amounts of chemicals - including pesticides, solvents, catalysts and wastes - were routinely dumped in and around the factory grounds. These include deadly substances such as aldicarb, carbaryl, mercury, and several chlorinated chemicals and organic poisons. In 1977, Carbide constructed Solar Evaporation Ponds (SEPs) over 14 hectares 400 meters north of its factory. Toxic effluents and toxic wastes were routinely dumped there. Two tube wells dug in the vicinity of the SEPs were abandoned because of the noxious smell and taste of the water.

A 1990 study by the Bhopal Group for Information and Action found di- and trichlorobenzenes in water samples taken from wells being used by communities living near the factory fence lines, and phthalates, chlorinated benzenes and aromatic hydrocarbons in the soil samples taken from the SEPs. In 1996, the State Research Laboratory conducted its own tests on water and concluded that the chemical contamination found is “due to chemicals used in the Union Carbide factory that have proven to be extremely harmful for health. Therefore the use of this water for drinking must be stopped immediately.”

In 1999, Greenpeace and Bhopal community groups documented the presence of stockpiles of toxic pesticides (including Sevin and hexachlorocyclohexane) as well as hazardous wastes and contaminated material scattered throughout the factory site. The survey found substantial and, in some locations, severe contamination of land and water supplies with heavy metals and chlorinated chemicals. Samples of groundwater from wells around the site showed high levels of chlorinated chemicals including chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, indicative of long-term contamination.

Over the years, the groundwater supplying an estimated 20,000 Bhopal residents has become heavily contaminated by Union Carbide’s toxic by-products. Lead, nickel, copper, chromium, hexachlorocyclohexane and chlorobenzenes were also found in soil samples. Mercury in some sediment samples was found to be between 20,000 and 6 million times the expected levels.

According to a 2002 study by the Fact Finding Mission on Bhopal, many of Union Carbide’s most dangerous toxins can now be found in the breast milk of mothers living around the factory. Yet Dow Chemical, Union Carbide's new owner, has suggested that the polluted, not the polluter, should pay for any cleanup.