Thursday, December 3, 2009

Quarter century anniversary of Bhopal disaster

On December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic gas, escaped from the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, quickly killing thousands of people, and injuring many others. Accurate numbers for deaths and injuries are not known, but the concensus seems to be about 15,000 deaths (including the number of people who died at the time of the accident and the weeks thereafter), and about 200,000 injuries.

The Bhopal disaster is described in detail in Nancy Leveson's excellent book A New Approach to System Safety Engineering

Here is what happened at Bhopal. A worker was cleaning one of the pipes, with water. Water from the cleaning operation flowed into an MIC tank, causing an explosion. Escape vents released hot MIC gases into the atmosphere. About 40 tons of toxin descended as a hot cloud on the population around Bhopal. Many people died on the spot. Some families had a chance to flee. Parents with gasping children had to decide quickly which child could be carried to safety and which child would be left behind. The Bhopal disaster is considered to be the worst industrial accident in history.

After the event, Union Carbide lawyers blamed the disaster on one individual; the worker who was cleaning the pipe. According to Union Carbide, because the disaster was the work of a saboteur, Union Carbide was not responsible.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that a lone sabateur caused the Bhopal disaster, What would this saboteur need to know in order to pull off his deadly scheme.

First, he would need to know, that he alone would be selected to wash out some clogged pipes that connected to the MIC tank. He would need to know that the valves separating the pipes from the MIC tank were leaky. He would need to know that the cleaning operation would not be inspected by an experienced shift supervisor (a position that was eliminated to save money) who would have probably inserted a safety disk to compensate for the leaky valve. He would need to know that the refrigeration unit for the MIC tank was not working, and that the MIC was not stored at a sufficiently low temperature to ensure the stability of the MIC/water mixture. He would need to know that the procedure for logging the temperature in the MIC tank had been halted, thus preventing other workers from noticing the rising tank temperatures. He would need to know that the first tell-tale gas reaction odors would reach co-workers during tea break, and that crucial actions would wait until after tea was served. He would need to know that the flare tower, intended to safely burn off released gases, was inadequate for the job. He would need to know that the MIC would be vented from a high stack (105 feet), above the reach of the water jets intended as a safety curtain. He would need to know that the warning siren would not sound until two hours after the gas release (after most of the damage was done). He would need to know that emergency measures to protect the population would not be taken. Rather than quickly evacuating the population, plant spokesmen at first denied that an accident had occurred. Rather than advising people that injuries could be reduced by applying a wet towel on the face and shutting their eyes, spokesmen reassured the public that MIC was not particularly harmful.

Here we are, twenty-five years later. What is the news from Bhopal?

The former CEO of Union Carbide was issued an arrest warrant by the Indian government, which has not been served because the Indian government is officially unaware of his whereabouts. The former CEO is said to be residing comfortably and openly in the Hamptons.

The Bhopal site has not been cleaned up. Dow Chemical has since acquired Union Carbide and accepts no responsibility for the clean-up. Dow asserts that a 2001 payment of $470 million to the Indian government has resolved the issue. The Indian environment minister, when visiting the Bhopal site, lifted a clot of dirt and proclaimed, "see, I am alive," certifying that the area is now safe. Nonetheless, each month, an estimated 10-30 people die from the contaminated groundwater and residual toxic waste.


Suketu Mehta. A cloud still hands over Bhopal. The New York Times, December 3, 2009.

Court issues arrest warrant for former CEO of Union Carbide in gas leak case. Associated Press (in The Guardian, UK) , July 31, 2009

Randeep Ramesh. Bhopal water still toxic 25 years after deadly gas leak, study finds. The Guardian, UK, December 1, 2009.

Leveson NG. A new approach to system safety engineering. (self-published), 2002

- © 2009 Jules J. Berman

In June, 2014, my book, entitled Rare Diseases and Orphan Drugs: Keys to Understanding and Treating the Common Diseases was published by Elsevier. The book builds the argument that our best chance of curing the common diseases will come from studying and curing the rare diseases.

I urge you to read more about my book. There's a generous preview of the book at the Google Books site. If you like the book, please request your librarian to purchase a copy of this book for your library or reading room.

tags: common disease, orphan disease, orphan drugs, rare disease, disease genetics, genetics of disease, bhopal, disaster, scapegoat, toxicity,