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The Bhopal Gas Tragedy Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 5397 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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On December 3, 1984. In the city of Bhopal, a cloud of toxic gases escaped from an American pesticide plant, killing and injuring thousands of people. When the noxious clouds cleared, the worst industrial disaster in history had taken place. Now, Dominique Lapierre in her book “Five Past Midnight” brings the hundreds of characters, conflicts, and adventures together in an unforgettable tale of love and hope.

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Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) was asked to build a plant for the manufacture of Sevin, a pesticide commonly used throughout Asia. As part of the deal, India’s government insisted that a significant percentage of the investment come from local shareholders. The government itself had a 22% stake in the company’s subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). The company built the plant in Bhopal because of its central location and access to transport infrastructure. The specific site within the city was zoned for light industrial and commercial use, not for hazardous industry. The plant was initially approved only for formulation of pesticides from component chemicals, such as MIC imported from the parent company, in relatively small quantities. However, pressure from competition in the chemical industry led UCIL to implement “backward integration” – the manufacture of raw materials and intermediate products for formulation of the final product within one facility. This was inherently a more sophisticated and hazardous process.

In 1984, the plant was manufacturing Sevin at one quarter of its production capacity due to decreased demand for pesticides. Widespread crop failures and famine on the subcontinent in the 1980s led to increased indebtedness and decreased capital for farmers to invest in pesticides. Local managers were directed to close the plant and prepare it for sale in July 1984 due to decreased profitability. When no ready buyer was found, UCIL made plans to dismantle key production units of the facility for shipment to another developing country. In the meantime, the facility continued to operate with safety equipment and procedures far below the standards found in its sister plant in Institute, West Virginia. The local government was aware of safety problems but was reticent to place heavy industrial safety and pollution control burdens on the struggling industry because it feared the economic effects of the loss of such a large employer.

At 11.00 PM on December 2 1984, while most of the one million residents of Bhopal slept, an operator at the plant noticed a small leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and increasing pressure inside a storage tank. The vent-gas scrubber, a safety device designer to neutralize toxic discharge from the MIC system, had been turned off three weeks prior. Apparently a faulty valve had allowed one ton of water for cleaning internal pipes to mix with forty tons of MIC. A 30 ton refrigeration unit that normally served as a safety component to cool the MIC storage tank had been drained of its coolant for use in another part of the plant. Pressure and heat from the vigorous exothermic reaction in the tank continued to build. The gas flare safety system was out of action and had been for three months. At around 1.00 AM, December 3, loud rumbling reverberated around the plant as a safety valve gave way sending a plume of MIC gas into the early morning air. Within hours, the streets of Bhopal were littered with human corpses and the carcasses of buffaloes, cows, dogs and birds. An estimated 3,800 people died immediately, mostly in the poor slum colony adjacent to the UCC plant. Local hospitals were soon overwhelmed with the injured, a crisis further compounded by a lack of knowledge of exactly what gas was involved and what its effects were. It became one of the worst chemical disasters in history and the name Bhopal became synonymous with industrial catastrophe.

Estimates of the number of people killed in the first few days by the plume from the UCC plant run as high as 10,000, with 15,000 to 20,000 premature deaths reportedly occurring in the subsequent two decades. The Indian government reported that more than half a million people were exposed to the gas. Several epidemiological studies conducted soon after the accident showed significant morbidity and increased mortality in the exposed population. These data are likely to under-represent the true extent of adverse health effects because many exposed individuals left Bhopal immediately following the disaster never to return and were therefore lost to follow-up.


Immediately after the disaster, UCC began attempts to dissociate itself from responsibility for the gas leak. Its principal tactic was to shift culpability to UCIL, stating the plant was wholly built and operated by the Indian subsidiary. It also fabricated scenarios involving sabotage by previously unknown Sikh extremist groups and disgruntled employees but this theory was impugned by numerous independent sources.

The toxic plume had barely cleared when, on December 7, the first multi-billion dollar lawsuit was filed by an American attorney in a U.S. court. This was the beginning of years of legal machinations in which the ethical implications of the tragedy and its affect on Bhopal’s people were largely ignored. In March 1985, the Indian government enacted the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act as a way of ensuring that claims arising from the accident would be dealt with speedily and equitably. The Act made the government the sole representative of the victims in legal proceedings both within and outside India. Eventually all cases were taken out of the U.S. legal system under the ruling of the presiding American judge and placed entirely under Indian jurisdiction much to the detriment of the injured parties.

In a settlement mediated by the Indian Supreme Court, UCC accepted moral responsibility and agreed to pay $470 million to the Indian government to be distributed to claimants as a full and final settlement. The figure was partly based on the disputed claim that only 3000 people died and 102,000 suffered permanent disabilities. Upon announcing this settlement, shares of UCC rose $2 per share or 7% in value. Had compensation in Bhopal been paid at the same rate that asbestosis victims where being awarded in US courts by defendant including UCC – which mined asbestos from 1963 to 1985 – the liability would have been greater than the $10 billion the company was worth and insured for in 1984. By the end of October 2003, according to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, compensation had been awarded to 554,895 people for injuries received and 15,310 survivors of those killed. The average amount to families of the dead was $2,200.

At every turn, UCC has attempted to manipulate, obfuscate and withhold scientific data to the detriment of victims. Even to this date, the company has not stated exactly what was in the toxic cloud that enveloped the city on that December night. When MIC is exposed to 200° heat, it forms degraded MIC that contains the more deadly hydrogen cyanide (HCN). There was clear evidence that the storage tank temperature did reach this level in the disaster. The cherry-red color of blood and viscera of some victims were characteristic of acute cyanide poisoning. Moreover, many responded well to administration of sodium thiosulfate, an effective therapy for cyanide poisoning but not MIC exposure. UCC initially recommended use of sodium thiosulfate but withdrew the statement later prompting suggestions that it attempted to cover up evidence of HCN in the gas leak. The presence of HCN was vigorously denied by UCC and was a point of conjecture among researchers.

As further insult, UCC discontinued operation at its Bhopal plant following the disaster but failed to clean up the industrial site completely. The plant continues to leak several toxic chemicals and heavy metals that have found their way into local aquifers. Dangerously contaminated water has now been added to the legacy left by the company for the people of Bhopal


The events in Bhopal revealed that expanding industrialization in developing countries without concurrent evolution in safety regulations could have catastrophic consequences. The disaster demonstrated that seemingly local problems of industrial hazards and toxic contamination are often tied to global market dynamics. UCC’s Sevin production plant was built in Madhya Pradesh not to avoid environmental regulations in the U.S. but to exploit the large and growing Indian pesticide market. However the manner in which the project was executed suggests the existence of a double standard for multinational corporations operating in developing countries. Enforceable uniform international operating regulations for hazardous industries would have provided a mechanism for significantly improved in safety in Bhopal. Even without enforcement, international standards could provide norms for measuring performance of individual companies engaged in hazardous activities such as the manufacture of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in India. National governments and international agencies should focus on widely applicable techniques for corporate responsibility and accident prevention as much in the developing world context as in advanced industrial nations. Specifically, prevention should include risk reduction in plant location and design and safety legislation.

Local governments clearly cannot allow industrial facilities to be situated within urban areas, regardless of the evolution of land use over time. Industry and government need to bring proper financial support to local communities so they can provide medical and other necessary services to reduce morbidity, mortality and material loss in the case of industrial accidents.

Public health infrastructure was very weak in Bhopal in 1984. Tap water was available for only a few hours a day and was of very poor quality. With no functioning sewage system, untreated human waste was dumped into two nearby lakes, one a source of drinking water. The city had four major hospitals but there was a shortage of physicians and hospital beds. There was also no mass casualty emergency response system in place in the city. Existing public health infrastructure needs to be taken into account when hazardous industries choose sites for manufacturing plants. Future management of industrial development requires that appropriate resources be devoted to advance planning before any disaster occurs. Communities that do not possess infrastructure and technical expertise to respond adequately to such industrial accidents should not be chosen as sites for hazardous industry.

Since 1984

Following the events of December 3 1984 environmental awareness and activism in India increased significantly. The Environment Protection Act was passed in 1986, creating the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and strengthening India’s commitment to the environment. Under the new act, the MoEF was given overall responsibility for administering and enforcing environmental laws and policies. It established the importance of integrating environmental strategies into all industrial development plans for the country. However, despite greater government commitment to protect public health, forests, and wildlife, policies geared to developing the country’s economy have taken precedence in the last 20 years.

India has undergone tremendous economic growth in the two decades since the Bhopal disaster. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has increased from $1,000 in 1984 to $2,900 in 2004 and it continues to grow at a rate of over 8% per year. Rapid industrial development has contributed greatly to economic growth but there has been significant cost in environmental degradation and increased public health risks. Since abatement efforts consume a large portion of India’s GDP, MoEF faces an uphill battle as it tries to fulfill its mandate of reducing industrial pollution. Heavy reliance on coal-fired power plants and poor enforcement of vehicle emission laws have result from economic concerns taking precedence over environmental protection.

With the industrial growth since 1984, there has been an increase in small scale industries (SSIs) that are clustered about major urban areas in India. There are generally less stringent rules for the treatment of waste produced by SSIs due to less waste generation within each individual industry. This has allowed SSIs to dispose of untreated wastewater into drainage systems that flow directly into rivers. New Delhi’s Yamuna River is illustrative. Dangerously high levels of heavy metals such as lead, cobalt, cadmium, chrome, nickel and zinc have been detected in this river which is a major supply of potable water to India’s capital thus posing a potential health risk to the people living there and areas downstream.

Land pollution due to uncontrolled disposal of industrial solid and hazardous waste is also a problem throughout India. With rapid industrialization, the generation of industrial solid and hazardous waste has increased appreciably and the environmental impact is significant.

India relaxed its controls on foreign investment in order to accede to WTO rules and thereby attract an increasing flow of capital. In the process, a number of environmental regulations are being rolled back as growing foreign investments continue to roll in. The Indian experience is comparable to that of a number of developing countries that are experiencing the environmental impacts of structural adjustment. Exploitation and export of natural resources has accelerated on the subcontinent. Prohibitions against locating industrial facilities in ecologically sensitive zones have been eliminated while conservation zones are being stripped of their status so that pesticide, cement and bauxite mines can be built. Heavy reliance on coal-fired power plants and poor enforcement of vehicle emission laws are other consequences of economic concerns taking precedence over environmental protection.

In March 2001, residents of Kodaikanal in southern India caught the Anglo-Dutch company, Unilever, red-handed when they discovered a dumpsite with toxic mercury laced waste from a thermometer factory run by the company’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Lever. The 7.4 ton stockpile of mercury-laden glass was found in torn stacks spilling onto the ground in a scrap metal yard located near a school. In the fall of 2001, steel from the ruins of the World Trade Center was exported to India apparently without first being tested for contamination from asbestos and heavy metals present in the twin tower debris. Other examples of poor environmental stewardship and economic considerations taking precedence over public health concerns abound.

The Bhopal disaster could have changed the nature of the chemical industry and caused a reexamination of the necessity to produce such potentially harmful products in the first place. However the lessons of acute and chronic effects of exposure to pesticides and their precursors in Bhopal has not changed agricultural practice patterns. An estimated 3 million people per year suffer the consequences of pesticide poisoning with most exposure occurring in the agricultural developing world. It is reported to be the cause of at least 22,000 deaths in India each year. In the state of Kerala, significant mortality and morbidity have been reported following exposure to Endosulfan, a toxic pesticide whose use continued for 15 years after the events of Bhopal.

Aggressive marketing of asbestos continues in developing countries as a result of restrictions being placed on its use in developed nations due to the well-established link between asbestos products and respiratory diseases. India has become a major consumer, using around 100,000 tons of asbestos per year, 80% of which is imported with Canada being the largest overseas supplier. Mining, production and use of asbestos in India is very loosely regulated despite the health hazards. Reports have shown morbidity and mortality from asbestos related disease will continue in India without enforcement of a ban or significantly tighter controls.

UCC has shrunk to one sixth of its size since the Bhopal disaster in an effort to restructure and divest itself. By doing so, the company avoided a hostile takeover, placed a significant portion of UCC’s assets out of legal reach of the victims and gave its shareholder and top executives bountiful profits. The company still operates under the ownership of Dow Chemicals and still states on its website that the Bhopal disaster was “cause by deliberate sabotage”.

Some positive changes were seen following the Bhopal disaster. The British chemical company, ICI, whose Indian subsidiary manufactured pesticides, increased attention to health, safety and environmental issues following the events of December 1984. The subsidiary now spends 30-40% of their capital expenditures on environmental-related projects. However, they still do not adhere to standards as strict as their parent company in the UK.

The US chemical giant DuPont learned its lesson of Bhopal in a different way. The company attempted for a decade to export a nylon plant from Richmond, VA to Goa, India. In its early negotiations with the Indian government, DuPont had sought and won a remarkable clause in its investment agreement that absolved it from all liabilities in case of an accident. But the people of Goa were not willing to acquiesce while an important ecological site was cleared for a heavy polluting industry. After nearly a decade of protesting by Goa’s residents, DuPont was forced to scuttle plans there. Chennai was the next proposed site for the plastics plant. The state government there made significantly greater demand on DuPont for concessions on public health and environmental protection. Eventually, these plans were also aborted due to what the company called “financial concerns”.


Name : Alkesh R Takpere

Age : 43

Company Name : RCF

Designation: Chief Manager (Technical services)

Which products do you deal in ?

Fertilizers and other chemicals

1) Fertilizer Urea

2) Complex fertilizers (NPK)

3) Methanol

4) Sodium Nitrate

5) Ammonium bicarbonate

6) Methylamines

7) Dimethyl Form amide

8) Dimethylacetamide

Which is the most hazardous chemical and what is the harm caused due to it ?

Methanol is a hazardous chemical. It has severed effects on the body such as severe abdominal, leg, and back pain. Amounts of methanol can also cause Loss of vision and even blindness.

Have your company faced any tragedy with regards to gas leakage?

No, RCF has never faced any gas leakage problems. During the start up and the shut down all the gases are arrested using flares.

If yes, how did you deal with the situation?

We have upgraded ourselves with all the latest technology. There are 22 plants in all and they are installed with DCS systems in all the plants. Being established in 1968 we gradually modernized all the systems. We have computerized control systems which help us track all the activities around the manufacturing units. The temperature level of all the vessels can be moderated via computer.

Internalized LAN system connections with the ammonia plants help in keeping a check on functioning of the plant, temperature and chemical levels, MCS 1010 degree Celsius.

Workplace monitors help us to take corrective actions via “Alarms” and “CCTV’s” which command the operators and the analysts.

What are the ideal norms to be followed in a chemical manufacturing company?

There are two types of Norms followed by the RCF: Safety norms and environment norms.

Safety norms:

Training to all contract employees

Time to time health check up

Separate training given to the engineers

Fire fighting training

Gloves, goggles and shoes to deal with hazardous chemicals

Welding shield for welding jobs

Environment norms:

Norms related to Sox ,Nox,Ammonia , “PM2.5”,CO etc

Other stipulated norms given by CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) and MPCB(Maharashtra Pollution Control Board) and RCF works way below these norms.

What precautions are taken as a measure of safety ?

Studies done by allocated bodies ISO 14000 ,ISO 9000 & OSAS -18000 ( Certified)

Proper medical aid availability at the time of accidents

Due care for worker life by availing the insurance

Health check up from time to time

Workers with Phobia’s detected by the doctor are not permitted to work

Fire Fighting Training is given to the workers in the welding department

Mock drill on Levels 1,2,&3 is conducted once in a quarter for monitoring safety

Level 1 : Deals with gaseous emissions

Level 2: Deals with Fire Department

Level 3: Mutual group discussions are done in case of major issues. Level 3 Mock drill is performed once in a year. BPCL & HPCL are members with RCF who are taken into consideration at level 3

Example: Heavy leakage

Did the company undergo any changes after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy?

RCF has set up the environment cell in 1978.

500 cr. was spent for environment protection while setting up the cell.

4 ambient air quality monitoring sections are set up around each plant of RCF to monitor the gas emissions from the plant.

They function 24×7; to transmit and capture data every 15 minutes.

Meteorological Department is set up in one of the plants to control the air pollution around RCF.

Are all the employees in your company insured?

There is a group insurance policy

The contract workers are insured under ESI

What is the role of the company in social responsibility?

Ans: The following initiatives have been taken by the company:

• Farmer Education on farm inputs

• Soil Testing of major and micro nutrients

• Water/Irrigation management

• Plant Protection Measures

• Training on post harvest technology & marketing

• Field and Crop Demonstrations are other effective means of imparting knowledge to farmers.

• Tie-up with M/s ITC e-choupal

• The Company has 6 static and 4 mobile soil-testing vans. More than 60,000 soil samples are tested every year and recommendations on efficient use of fertilizers are given through ‘Soil Health Cards’.

• 600 Krishi-melas conducted serving around 3,00,000 farmers per year

• RCF has launched a dedicated website for farmers “www.rcfkrushisamridhi.com”

What are the various monitoring & surveillance system adopted by the company for security purposes?

Ans: For security purposes the company follows various policies like:

The ‘Fraud Prevention Policy of RCF-2010’ has been framed to provide a system for detection and prevention of fraud, reporting of any fraud that is detected or suspected and fair dealing of matters pertaining to fraud. The policy will ensure and provide for the following:-

1. To ensure that management is aware of its responsibilities for detection and prevention of fraud and for establishing procedures for preventing fraud and/or detecting fraud when it occurs.

2. To provide a clear guidance to employees and others dealing with RCF, forbidding them from involvement in any fraudulent activity and the action to be taken by them where they suspect any fraudulent activity.

3. To conduct investigations into fraudulent activities.

4. To provide assurances that any and all suspected fraudulent activity will be fully investigated.

This policy applies to any fraud, or suspected fraud, involving employees of RCF (all full time, part time or employees appointed on adhoc / temporary / contract basis, probationers and trainees) as well as representatives of vendors, suppliers, contractors, consultants, service providers or any outside agency doing any type of business with RCF.

The company also employs 12 to 15 security guards in & around the office premises.

What is the back-up plan of the company in case of untoward accident or any emergency?

Ans: There is availability of ambulance at factory site

Safety alarms are available as a warning signal to act quickly in case of emergency

Workers are provided with proper and maintained machineries

What role does ethics play at RCF?

We make sure that air pollution Act, water pollution act and noise pollution act are followed strictly. In MOU with government of India we ensure that are 2 man days per employee for training.

What measure has RCF taken apart from the government norms?

Instead of N2O, RCF uses DN2O acid catalyst which has the potential of depleting pollution by 300 times. We also use selective catalytic reactor to emit colorless fumes instead of brown fumes as earlier.

Interpretation& Analysis of the Interview

RCF produces fertilizers and other hazardous chemicals of the grades :15-15-15 & 20-20-0

RCF being one of the largest chemical fertilizing plants takes utmost precautions and applies stringent practice of safety measures.

They are very particular about the safety and take heavy measures for the same.

They give adequate training to all the workers as well as the contract employees. They are one step ahead in applying the safety norms. There have no incident taken place in RCF with respect to gas leakage or other such disaster.

They are very innovative and have modernized all the plants since 1968.They use computerised monitoring system to check the functioning of every plant which is reviewed in every 15 minutes.There are 22 plants and a plant is shut down once a year for annual maintenance either in May or October for a maximum period of 20 days one plant at a time.They have spent around 500 crores for developing the environment cell thus contributing to the protection of environment.

They are also very particular about the health of every worker. Also after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy , the government norms have become very stringent.Thus, the whole interview gave us a idea that RCF believes in “Better Safe than Sorry”

Q. Describe the systematic errors that led to the disaster in December 1984 ?

These were the above factors that contributes to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984.


The use of hazardous chemicals like (MIC) instead of less dangerous ones 



Storing these chemicals in large tanks instead of over 200 steel drums. 

Possible corroding material in pipelines  

Poor maintenance after the plant ceased production in the early 1980s 


Failure of several safety systems (due to poor maintenance and regulations). 

Safety systems being switched off to save money-including the MIC tank refrigeration system which alone would have prevented the disaster.


The problem was made worse by the plant’s location near a densely populated area, non-existent catastrophe plans and shortcomings in health care and socio-economic rehabilitation.

Analysis shows that the parties responsible for the magnitude of the disaster are the two owners, Union Carbide Corporation and the Government of India, and to some extent, the Government of Madhya Pradesh.


Providing less wages & no promotions to highly skilled workers which made them to switch the organisation.


Forcing the workers to use english manuals even after knowing they are not familiar with the language.

Q. Find out trigger points that a continuous process manufacturing plant dealing with hazardous materials need to watch out for ?

A continuous process manufacturing plant have to watch out on following points :

Chemical levels of :



Ammonia $ other hazardous Chemicals

Temperature levels of the Vessels

After Bhopal Gas Tragedy , all the chemical manufacturing companies have started having stag monitors in every branch as a precaution measure.

Wherever these hazardous chemicals are produced, stored, used or handled, a proper and effective health management programme should be implemented so as to protect the interest and safeguard the safety and health of people who are exposed to such materials.

Policies and strategy – the responsibility of the management regarding the safety of employees and the use of the chemicals should be stated in the policy statement. To give effect to the policy, the management must frame a wide strategy on managing the hazardous chemicals.

Register of chemicals – these should contain the information regarding the location and the inventory of the chemicals. Also it should mention the number of people exposed to those hazardous chemicals.

Risk assessment and control – 1) identification of the safety and the health hazardous events,

2) Frequency of the exposure to the chemicals and likelihood of occurrence of the events and its evolution too.

If the finding shows that the risk is too high and not acceptable than preventive measures should be taken as soon as possible.

Safety work procedures – at any point where and when this chemicals are used in handling there should be a written procedure for the start up, routine operation, shut down and maintenance work. It also include the use of personal protective equipments when necessary and also other precautions to be taken.

Storage of chemicals – a storage system is established based on the nature of the chemical, incompatibility, quantity and environmental conditions. So the layout of the storage design should take into the consideration like the statutory requirement, material safety data and also other national and international standards to be followed.

Personal protection equipment include respirators, safety glasses, field shields overall, aprons and gloves.

Workplace monitoring – it reveals which workers, area of the workplace and nearby vicinity of the plant will be most affected if level of the airborne contamination increases. A regular checkup by a competent person should be carried out and also result of the monitoring should be correctly evaluated and properly recorded.

Emergency planning responses and first aid procedures – its needed to cope up

with chemical acciidents such as fires, explosions, spills, or leaks of hazardous materials. Emergency procedures should be established so that the source of release should be properly rectified and the area of contamination could be properly contained. The first aid programme will ensure that provisions for emergency treatment of victims of chemical poisoning or excessive exposure to toxic chemicals are met.

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Information and training – employees who handle chemicals or may be affected by them should be informed of the hazard potential of these chemicals and the procedures for safe handling, minimization of exposure. A training programme should be instituted to ensure that the safe handling procedure are both known and understood by all concerned. Information on hazardous chemicals and safe handling procedures should be disseminated regularly to employees involved via group and individual training, data sheets and other aids.

Programme review and audit – the management should conduct an annual review of its hazard


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