December 4, 2022

Evaluation of magnitude of health hazards in Bhopal Gas Tragedy by Supreme Court

Early in the morning of December 3, 1984, one of the greatest industrial tragedies that history has recorded got clamped down on the otherwise quiet township of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. The incident was large in magnitude – 2,600 people died instantaneously and suite a good number of the inhabitants of the town suffered from several ailments.

Union Carbide Corporation (‘UCC’ for short), a multi- national one, had diverse and extensive international operations in countries like India, Canada, West Asia, the Far East, African countries, Latin America and Europe. It has a sister concern known as Union Carbide India Limited (‘UCIL’ for short).

The Union Carbide (India) Limited (for short the UCIL) owned and operated, in the northern sector of Bhopal, a chemical plant manufacturing pesticides commercially marketed under the trade-names “Sevin” and “Temik”. Methyl Isocy- anate (MIC) was an ingredient in the composition of these pesticides. In the early hours of the 3rd of December, 1984, there was a massive escape of lethal gas from the MIC Storage Tank of the plant into the atmosphere which led to the calamity.

Owing to the then prevailing wind conditions the fumes blew into the hutments abut- ting the premises of the plant and the residents of that area had to bear the brunt of the fury of the vitriolic fumes. Besides large areas of the city were also exposed to the gas.

Horrendous Industrial Mass Disaster

The Bhopal Gas Leak tragedy that occurred at midnight on 2nd December, 1984, by the escape of deadly chemical fumes form the UCC’s pesticide-factory was a horrendous industrial mass disaster, unparalleled in its magnitude and devastation and remaining a ghastly monument to the de-humanising influence of inherently dangerous technologies. The tragedy took an immediate toll of 2,660 innocent human lives and left tens of thousands of innocent citizens of Bhopal physically impaired or affected in various degrees.

What added grim poignance to the tragedy was that the industrial-enterprise was using Methyl Iso-cyanate, a lethal toxic poison, whose potentiality for destruction of life and biotic-communities was, apparently, matched only by the lack of a pre-package of relief procedures for management of any accident based on adequate scientific knowledge as to the ameliorative medical procedures for immediate neutralisation of its effects.

The effect of the exposure of the victims to Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) which was stored in considerably large quantities in tanks in the chemical plant of the UCIL which escaped on the night of the 2nd of December 1984 both in terms of acute and chronic episodes has been much discussed.

Evaluation of magnitude and intensity of health hazards

There has been growing body of medical literature evaluating the magnitude and intensity of the health hazards which the exposed population of Bhopal suffered as immediate effects and to which it was potentially put at risk. MIC is the most toxic chemical in industrial use. There were certain studies on the subject carried out by the Toxicology Laboratory, Department of Industrial Environmental Health Sciences, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh [reported in Environmental Health Perspective Volume 72, pages 159 to 167].

Though it was initially assumed that MIC caused merely simple and short-term injuries by scalding the surface tissues owing to its highly exothermic reaction with water it had then been found by medical research that injury caused by MIC was not to the mere surface tissues of the eyes and the lungs but was to the entire system including nephrological lymph, immune, circulatory system, etc. It is even urged that exposure to MIC has mutagenic effects and that the injury caused by exposure to MIC is progressive. The hazards of exposure to this lethal poison are yet an unknown quantum.

Certain studies undertaken by the Central Water and Air Pollution Control Board, spoke of the high toxicity of the chemical. The estimates of the concentration of MIC at Bhopal that fateful night by the Board inculcate a concentration of 26- 70 parts per million as against the ‘OSHA’ standard for work environment of 0.02 P.P.M. which is said to represent the threshold of tolerance. This has led to what can only be described as a grim and grisly tragedy.

Research studies seemed to suggest that exposure to this chemical fumes renders the human physiology susceptible to long term pathology and the toxin is suspected to lodge itself in the tissues and cause long term damage to the vital systems, apart from damaging the exposed parts such as the eyes, lung membrane ere. The ‘latency-period’ for the symptomatic manifestation of the effects of the exposure is such that a vast section of the exposed population is put at risk and the potential risk of long term effects is presently unpredictable.

Immediately symptomatic cases showed ocular inflammation affecting visual acuity and respiratory distress owing to pulmonary edema and a marked tending towards general morbidity.

REFERENCE

Union carbide Corporation v. Union of India, (1991)