Twenty-Five Years Later, Still No Justice for Bhopal

You awake in the night to find yourself choking, your eyes watering, throat burning. Your children are vomiting, their eyes swelling shut, frothing at the mouth. Outside your door is a city in panic; everyone is running but there is nowhere to go and no one knows what’s happening. Pregnant women miscarry as they run; families carry their dead in their arms while trying to flee. There is no one to help you, and there is no escape.

What I’m describing isn’t a nightmare or a horrifying scene from a movie; it's what happened on December 2 and December 3, 1984, in the city of Bhopal, India. Twenty-five years ago a cloud of toxic gas approximately thirty-feet tall leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide plant there, causing the worst industrial accident in history. Although estimates vary as to how many people were killed or injured, it is beyond doubt that somewhere between 4,500 and 10,000 people died during the first 72 hours after the leak, and that another 15,000 to 25,000 died during the next few years due to related illnesses. (You can view a slideshow of images of the disaster here, but be warned that they are graphic and heartbreaking.)

For fear of compounding their legal liability, Union Carbide never identified the exact chemical agents released during the catastrophe, leaving doctors to treat victims without accurate information. Choking and suffering from violent convulsions, many Bhopal residents drowned in their own fluids. Tragically, many of these victims could have been saved merely by holding a wet cloth over their mouth and nose.

The primary causes of this overwhelming loss of life were the cost-cutting measures and carelessness of the plant’s owner, the Union Carbide Corporation. None of the plant’s six safety systems were functional, and Union Carbide’s own documents demonstrate convincingly that the company designed the plant with “unproven” and “untested” technology, cutting corners on safety and maintenance in an effort to save money. Unlike Union Carbide plants in the United States, the Bhopal plant had no action plan in place to cope with spills or leaks. In fact, the plant is known to have had a number of safety violations that would never have been allowed in an American chemical facility. American experts who visited the plant after 1981 warned of the potential of a “runaway reaction” and local Indian authorities warned the company of problems on several occasions from 1979 onwards. In the months before the accident the corporation’s own scientists warned of the possibility of an accident almost identical to that which eventually occurred. All of this information was ignored.

In 1989 Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million for damages caused in the Bhopal disaster, which amounted to an average payout of $2,200 to the families of the dead, but the story does not end there. Twenty-five years later, more than 100,000 people still suffer from the aftereffects of the leak, and large amounts of toxic chemicals have been abandoned at the plant, polluting the ground water in the region and affecting thousands of people. Further, a 2003 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms that children of gas-affected parents are themselves suffering the effects of Union Carbide’s poisons.

The Dow Chemical Company acquired Union Carbide’s assets and liabilities when Dow purchased the company in 2001. To this day, Dow-Carbide has refused to:

  • Clean up the factory site, which continues to contaminate the area’s air, soil, and water
  • Provide just compensation to victims
  • Fund necessary medical care, health monitoring regimens, and research studies
  • Reveal decades of the company’s research on the effects of the toxins released
  • Offer alternate livelihoods to victims who cannot pursue their work because of exposure-related illness
  • Stand trial before the Chief Judicial Magistrate's court in Bhopal, where Union Carbide faces criminal charge of culpable homicide (manslaughter)

There are a variety of ways that you can help the people of Bhopal achieve justice and receive the medical care they so desperately need:

  • Make a donation to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which runs the only free clinic offering care to the accident’s victims.
  • Make a donation to the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, which represents thousands of survivors and hundreds of supporters worldwide.
  • Call board members of the Dow Chemical Company to demand justice. Tell them: “My name is ___ from ___ and I am calling ___, who is a Dow Board Member, to say that Dow must face their liabilities in Bhopal. When your company purchased Union Carbide, you took on all of their liabilities. Compensation to all affected individuals is both Dow’s legal and moral responsibility. I am encouraging you to address your liabilities and immediately clean up the site. Send Union Carbide to face the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Bhopal.” Dow board members include Andrew Liveris, CEO, 989-636-1752; Arnold A. Allemang, (989) 636-1000; Jacqueline K. Barton, (626) 395-6075; John B. Hess, (212) 997-8500; Geoffery E. Merszei, (847) 615-8941; James M. Ringler, (847) 615-8774; and Paul G. Stern, (301) 869-7007.
  • Take action online. Send emails to Dow Chemical Company and to the Prime Minister of India telling them both to end 25 years of injustice.

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