December 18, 2014

By Catherine Porter, Policy Consultant

In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, a cloud of toxic gas from a leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant descended on the adjacent neighborhood in Bhopal, India.  The sleeping residents became engulfed in a cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC), resulting in the deaths of 8,000 women, men and children in the first week after the disaster.[i]  Autopsies and other evidence indicate that the gas leak also contained the deadly poison cyanide.[ii]  The injuries that led to death were mainly to the respiratory system, most likely pulmonary edema, bronchospasm, and electrolyte imbalance.[iii]  Since 1984, it’s estimated that as many as 20,000 to 30,000 have died or been permanently disabled from their injuries that night.[iv]

To this day, pollution from the gas leak continues to severely contaminate the soil and groundwater around the abandoned site, leaving a toxic legacy for new generations who suffer from high rates of cancer, birth defects and developmental problems. As many as 600,000 people have been affected in all.[v]

In spite of the ongoing health and environmental threats posed by the chemical contamination, Dow Chemical, which purchased Union Carbide in 2001 and is the legal owner of its assets and liabilities, continues to refuse to take responsibility for the cleanup.  Dow has refused to stand trial in a court in Bhopal, where Union Carbide faces criminal charges of manslaughter.[vi]

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, SF Bay Area PSR co-sponsored a week of events billed as “We all Live in Bhopal ” to underscore the great risk of industrial chemical accidents we all face even right here in the Bay area.  On the opening night, Jayshree Chander, M.D., MPH,  a former SF Bay Area PSR Board member and lead organizer of the event, recalled her own experience as a volunteer in a clinic in Bhopal in 1997 where she developed symptoms similar to those experienced by residents near the Union Carbide site.   Rick Hind of Greenpeace connected the dots about our own risks here in the U.S. of a similarly devastating industrial chemical disaster.  U.C. Berkeley’s Dean of the School of Public Health Stefano Bertozzi  reflected on U.S. corporations such as Union Carbide and Dow often failing to put adequate, if any, safety and health controls at their sites in developing countries.

The evening also featured a screening of the film “Bhopali.”  It told the stories of survivors who work to serve the physical and emotional needs of the survivor community.  They and other activists in Bhopal, and around the world, continue to call for the cleanup of the abandoned pesticide plant.

To find out how you can lend your voice to the call for the clean-up of the Dow/Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, click here.


[i] ICJP, http://www.bhopal.net/what-happened/that-night-december-3-1984/the-death-toll/3 days

[iii] Chronic Toxicity Summary, Methyl Isocyanate, California EPA,  Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA),   http://oehha.ca.gov/air/chronic_rels/pdf/methyliso.pdf

[iv] ICJP, http://www.bhopal.net/what-happened/that-night-december-3-1984/the-death-toll/

[v] New York times, Editorial, Bhopal’s Deadly Legacy, Dec. 4, 2014,  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/05/opinion/bhopals-deadly-legacy.html