Seven Decades of Safety: Bhopal's Legacy: New Vigilance in the Chemical Industry

Chemical industry experts consider the tragic events of 14-years ago in Bhopal to be the biggest wake-up call of all time. Chemical companies undertook a massive reexamination of their safety practices when a Union Carbide pesticide producing plant emitted a highly toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC) onto the densely populated region of Bhopal in central India.

On Dec. 3, 1984, over 40 tons of MIC and other lethal gases including hydrogen cyanide, leaked into the northern end of Bhopal, killing over 3,000 people in its immediate aftermath.

The cloud was formed by a reaction between MIC, a chemical intermediate used in the manufacture of pesticides, and a couple hundred gallons of water.

The protective equipment that could have halted the impending disaster was not in full working order: The refrigeration system that should have cooled the storage tank was shut down, the scrubbing system that should have absorbed the vapor was not immediately available and the flare system that would have burned any vapor that got past the scrubbing system was out of order.

A Union Carbide investigation concluded that a disgruntled worker, as an act of sabotage, was responsible for introducing water into a tank containing MIC. Other experts and the Indian government blamed poor process design and lack of maintenance for the accident.

The International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB) visited Bhopal in January 1984. As a result of the epidemiological and clinical studies IMCB conducted, it estimated as many as 50,000 survivors were still suffering from partial or total disability resulting from the disaster.

Bhopal as a Benchmark

Major changes in safety legislation often arise out of tragedy and Bhopal was no exception. In the United States, Bhopal was the impetus for the passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), labeled “Bhopal legislation” in 1986. The law was designed to inform American communities about the potential chemical dangers they faced, and to bolster the industry's precautions against accidental chemical releases.

Despite safer practices, said Paul Orum from the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, chemical accidents have occurred in the United States with releases the size of what entered the atmosphere in Bhopal. But because there were not large numbers of civilians living around the immediate perimeter of the companies where the releases occurred, the effects were not nearly as grave.

“Companies should not store large amounts of hazardous chemicals where they can harm many people, and companies need to identify safer alternatives and implement them,” he stressed.

Decade of the 80's

1979-1988
TIMELINE

1981: President Reagan fires air traffic controllers

1983: OSHA promulgates hazard communication rule

1986: Chernobyl nuclear reactor explodes

1988: Reagan and Gorbachev sign European missile ban treaty

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