The Chemical Industry's Bhopal Legacy

Nineteen years ago this week, families in Bhopal, India were awakened in the middle of the night by terrible burning in their eyes and lungs. Within minutes, children and mothers and fathers staggered into the street, gasping for air and blinded by the chemicals that seared their eyes. As they ran in terror, someone shouted that the Union Carbide pesticides factory had exploded, spewing poisonous gas throughout the city.

Soon thousands of people lay dead in the city's main roads. Every truck, taxi and ox cart was weighted down with injured and terrified refugees. No one in the emergency room at the city hospital knew what the toxic gases were or how to treat the thousands of patients that flooded into the hallways.

By morning, more than 5,000 people were dead, while a half million more were injured.

Bhopal has rightly been called the Hiroshima of the chemical industry. It not only tells the stark story of the human fall-out from a chemical factory explosion born of supreme negligence but offers up important lessons about the continuing failure of the chemical industry and government to address the security and public health threats posed by dangerous chemicals.

The day after the disaster, Union Carbide's CEO Warren Anderson flew to India to assess the damage his company had visited upon its Indian neighbors. He was promptly met at the airport and arrested. After a few days he was released and allowed to return to the United States. Anderson has not returned to India since. There is an outstanding warrant for his arrest and a pending criminal homicide case against him and other Carbide officials in the Bhopal courts. The Indian government has even issued extradition orders for Anderson, but the U.S. government has so far ignored the extradition request. This complete lack of respect for the law reinforces the image of the chemical industry as a renegade industry that is largely uncontrollable.

Nineteen years have passed, but today in Bhopal thousands of people remain sick from chemical exposure, while more than 50,000 are disabled due to their injuries. The amount of compensation Union Carbide paid to the survivors has not been enough to cover basic medicines, let alone other costs associated with various disabilities and inability to work. The sad reality is that we continue to learn about chemicals by exposing large numbers of people to them.

We have learned about dioxin contamination by poisoning American veterans and the entire Vietnamese population with Agent Orange. We have learned about asbestos by killing off thousands of workers to lung disease. And we have learned about the long-term effects of methyl-isocyanate (MIC) by spewing it across an entire city in India. There are many other examples of this kind of uncontrolled chemical experimentation. In most cases, the industry rarely pays the full cost of the massive damage it has caused.

The abandoned factory site in Bhopal remains essentially the same as the day that Carbide's employees ran for their lives. Sacks of unused pesticides lay strewn in storerooms; toxic waste litters the grounds and continues to leak into the neighborhood well water supply. The buildings themselves are ghostly, a rotting monument to the excesses of the pesticide revolution in India and the lack of corporate responsibility for its failures.

Officials at Dow Chemical, the new owners of Union Carbide, claim they have nothing to do with the ongoing disaster in Bhopal -- neither the pending criminal case, the environmental contamination, nor the public health fall-out. Yet Dow has set aside $2 billion to address Carbide's asbestos liabilities, another public health legacy of the former chemical giant.

The chemical industry has always viewed Bhopal purely as a public relations disaster; a powerful symbol that demonstrated the industry was a menace and a threat to people's health and safety. In order to head off further regulation, the chemical manufacturers created a voluntary program called "Responsible Care" with the logo, "Don't Trust Us, Track Us." In this way, the industry has avoided any serious restrictions on its chemicals for nearly 20 years.

During this time lapse, we have continued to learn more about the dark side of the chemical revolution. We have learned that today we all carry the chemical industry's toxic products in our bodies. Every man, women and child in America has a "body burden" of chemicals that are linked to cancer, birth defects, asthma, learning disabilities and other diseases. We are all guinea pigs in an epic uncontrolled chemical experiment run by Dow, Monsanto, DuPont and other petrochemical companies.

If we woke up one morning and learned that this chemical invasion was the work of foreign terrorists, the federal government would be completely mobilized to defend our citizens from this chemical warfare threat. But because the perpetrators are some of President Bush's most generous contributors and ardent collaborators, we are left defenseless as a nation against this chemical security threat.

Recently, it's become even harder to track the chemical industry, since it has been working with the Bush Administration behind the veil of homeland security to conceal information about the "worst case disaster" for its facilities and the health threat posed by its products. But the picture that is emerging is a frightening one.

According to federal government sources, there are 123 chemical facilities nationwide that could kill at least one million people if they accidentally exploded or were attacked by terrorists. Some of these chemical factories are located in major American cities and put as many as 8 million lives at risk. Yet the chemical industry continues to resist any meaningful regulation that would require it to replace the most dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives. A recent "60 Minutes" expose vividly showed that many facilities lack even the most basic security protection, yet the government is spending billions of our tax dollars looking for chemical terrorists overseas.

We don't have to look in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction. They are right here, in our neighborhoods, in our food and in our bodies.

On this 19th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, survivors in Bhopal will march and make speeches and demand their basic rights to be free of chemical poisons, to be compensated for their damages, and to hold the chemical industry responsible for the world's worst industrial disaster.

Despite their ongoing victimization, people in Bhopal have not given up. Their protests are testimony to the triumph of memory over forgetting and the celebration of the human spirit over the rationalized tyranny of corporate profit margins and evasion of responsibility.

The Bhopal survivors are speaking for us as well. In the last two decades, Bhopal has come much closer to home. The chemical terror they experienced and the lack of care and respect they have received are a haunting reminder that we also live under a similar poison cloud.

Gary Cohen is the executive director of the Environmental Health Fund in Boston. He serves on the international advisory board of the Sambhavna Trust, which operates a free medical clinic for the survivors in Bhopal.

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