Report Finds Groundwater in Bhopal Communities Is Still Polluted

Dec. 1, 2009
Nearly 25 years after an industrial tragedy killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India, a new report from The Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) shows that the groundwater in surrounding Bhopal communities remains contaminated with toxic chemicals.

The Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal released tons of the toxic gas methyl isocyanate (MIC) and other lethal gases on Dec. 3, 1984, killing up to 10,000 people in the following days. According to BMA, as many as 30,000 may have died has a result of the incident, and more than 120,000 people today still suffer from the exposure or resulting pollution. The plant ceased operations after the disaster, but BMA asserted that the site has not undergone an adequate cleanup.

“Unsheltered chemicals have been stored on-site for decades and these chemicals continuously leach into soil and groundwater. As a result of the inaction to remove these chemicals, contamination of soil and groundwater in the surrounding communities may be a source of many health problems among residents within these communities,” the report said.

BMA surveyed 15 communities surrounding the plant site to analyze chemical contaminants in groundwater and assess the drinking water supply, with results showing the drinking water supply in many of the communities is “insufficient.”

“Thousands of residents are lacking access to clean drinking water as the water supply system installed by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation is in poor condition while groundwater from private hand pumps and bore wells is of poor quality,” stated the report.

“Unacceptable” Water Supply

In its comprehensive report, BMA examined water supply systems within the 15 communities, produced individual community reports, reviewed previous water quality monitoring and assessment studies, discussed data and laboratory analysis from previous studies and focused on the results of a water sampling campaign conducted in the communities.

According to BMA, residents reported headaches and stomach cramps or diarrhea after drinking water from tanks or groundwater. Other ailments, such as skin rashes, also could be related to the drinking water. BMA proposed that chemical pollutants likely caused the rashes.

BMA’s groundwater sampling campaign found that the community Atal Ayub Nagar exhibited the highest chloroform and carbon tetrachloride concentrations in water taken from a hand pump. “The sampling design of our survey allows conclusions to be drawn only on a local scale regarding groundwater quality, i.e. in Atal Ayug Nagar. However, our results combined with data from former sampling campaigns conducted by NGOs and governmental agencies … strongly indicate that groundwater is contaminated on a larger scale, and not limited to Atal Ayub Nagar,” the report stated. “Communities located northeast of the UCIL plant site are thought to be the most affected, as a geological survey (NEERI 1990) has revealed, that the groundwater flow is in a north-easterly direction.”

BMA recommended that communities receive clean drinking water, as ensured by the Bhopal Municipal Corp.; swift action by the government to improve maintenance of the water pipe system and water tanks; monitoring and a treatment process for the lake or large groundwater pumping stations; and installation of a network of pipes and tanks to connect all communities to a water supply system. BMA also suggested a groundwater sampling campaign for the communities covered in the report.

“The current water supply situation within the communities included in this survey is unacceptable. The supply is clearly insufficient and chemical contaminants present in groundwater at concentrations massively exceeding WHO drinking water guideline values, posing potential health risks to thousands of residents,” the report stated. “In order to improve the water supply within these communities, the authorities (i.e. the Bhopal Municipal Corporation) have to take immediate action. It must be ensured that sufficient quantities of clean drinking water are delivered to the residents in these areas, and that the water supply system is maintained properly.”

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About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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