Bhopal Gas Tragedy Case Study Summary

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The Bhopal Gas tragedy is the worst air pollution episode ever witnessed in India. It happened in Bhopal on December 3, 1984.

The Union Carbide factory is located in Bhopal, a town in Madhya Pradesh. The fateful incident happened due to the leakage of lethal gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from three storage tanks of Union Carbide factory, a Multinational Corporation. MIC is an intermediate used in the manufacture of pesticides. Methyl isocyanate (MIC) is produced by combination of phosgene, a deadly poisonous gas used in the First World War with methyl amine. In the accident nearly 36 tones of poisonous MIC gas released into the air of Bhopal. MIC gas causes burning sensation in the eyes, removes oxygen from the lungs resulting in breathing trouble and chest tightness, and also cyanide generation in the body, which ultimately turn fatal and leads to death.

Bhopal gas tragedy caused the single biggest air pollution tragedy which, according to official sources, claimed 2500 lives, whereas non-governmental sources put the figure much higher. According to the figure released by the government around 17,000 people have been rendered permanent disabled and another 30,000 partially handicapped. Those who have suffered mini disability number about 1,50,000.

The Bhopal gas tragedy polluted drinking water, soils, tank and pond water and adversely affected fetus, newly born babies, pregnant woman, young and old people alike. It killed thousands of animals and innumerable micro-organisms.

The tragedy is a burning example of one of the deadliest disaster caused by human negligence in the maintenance of deadly gas such as MIC gas. Several circumstantial evidence points to the total breakdown of the essential safety provisions within the plant negligence of the authorities.

Those relevant facts are furnished below:

1. The plant has two main safety devices:

  • Scrubber, which neutralize the gas with caustic soda and
  • Flare tower, where the gas can be burnt off.

Both the safety devices failed to operate on that particular day.

2. The refrigeration units for the storage tanks containing MIC gas were out of order for several months.

3. The water jet had failed to reach at the top of the 120 ft stack from which MIC gas was gushing out.

4. The poisonous gas was stored in the tanks for more than two months, violating the safety rules.

5. The factory turned on the public siren about an hour after the gas started releasing into the atmosphere.

6. The plant was located in densely populated area of old Bhopal.

Category: EnvironmentTagged With: Environment

"The numerous safety systems with which this type of plant is equipped enable us to control any of the MIC's potentially dangerous reactions."

- A Union Carbide official commenting on the safety systems in the Bhopal pesticide plant.

"It's not a deadly gas, just irritating, a sort of tear gas."

- Dr Loya, Union Carbide's official doctor in Bhopal, commenting on Methyl Isocyanate, after the tragedy.

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Introduction

In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, a poisonous grey cloud (forty tons of toxic gases) from Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL's)1 pesticide plant at Bhopal spread throughout the city. Water carrying catalytic material had entered Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) storage tank No. 610. What followed was a nightmare.

The killer gas spread through the city, sending residents scurrying through the dark streets. No alarm ever sounded a warning and no evacuation plan was prepared. When victims arrived at hospitals breathless and blind, doctors did not know how to treat them, as UCIL had not provided emergency information.

It was only when the sun rose the next morning that the magnitude of the devastation was clear. Dead bodies of humans and animals blocked the streets, leaves turned black, the smell of burning chilli peppers lingered in the air. Estimates suggested that as many as 10,000 may have died immediately and 30,000 to 50,000 were too ill to ever return to their jobs.

The catastrophe raised some serious ethical issues. The pesticide factory was built in the midst of densely populated settlements. UCIL chose to store and produce MIC, one of the most deadly chemicals (permitted exposure levels in USA and Britain are 0.02 parts per million), in an area where nearly 120,000 people lived. The MIC plant was not designed to handle a runaway reaction. When the uncontrolled reaction started, MIC was flowing through the scrubber (meant to neutralize MIC emissions) at more than 200 times its designed capacity.

MIC in the tank was filled to 87% of its capacity while the maximum permissible was 50%. MIC was not stored at zero degree centigrade as prescribed and the refrigeration and cooling systems had been shut down five months before the disaster, as part of UCC's global economy drive. Vital gauges and indicators in the MIC tank were defective. The flare tower meant to burn off MIC emissions was under repair at the time of the disaster and the scrubber contained no caustic soda.

As part of UCC's drive to cut costs, the work force in the Bhopal factory was brought down by half from 1980 to 1984. This had serious consequences on safety and maintenance. The size of the work crew for the MIC plant was cut in half from twelve to six workers. The maintenance supervisor position had been eliminated and there was no maintenance supervisor. The period of safety-training to workers in the MIC plant was brought down from 6 months to 15 days.

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