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Studies Contend Bhopal Still Contaminated, 25 Years After World's Worst Industrial Disaster

Supporters of victims of world's worst industrial disaster, which happened 25 years ago this week, are releasing new scientific studies claiming a continuing environmental disaster in the central Indian city, Bhopal.

MIC storage tank 610 which overflowed, causing fatal gas leak
MIC storage tank 610 which overflowed, causing fatal gas leak

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Supporters of victims of the world's worst industrial disaster, which happened 25 years ago this week, are releasing new scientific studies claiming a continuing environmental disaster in the central Indian city, Bhopal.

Many people in Bhopal are still drinking water contaminated with dangerous chemicals. That is the conclusion of two just-released studies of communities surrounding the defunct Union Carbide pesticide factory.

An estimated 8,000 people died within several days after methyl isocyanate leaked from the plant on the night of December 2, 1984.  Thousands of subsequent deaths are also blamed on the resulting gas cloud that enveloped the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh.

Tim Edwards, trustee of the Bhopal Medical Appeal - one of the groups sponsoring some of the research - says groundwater contamination, caused by the incident, appears to be getting worse as time goes on.

"This is the real part of the iceberg.  The tip is the surface waste but the real stuff is under the ground," Edwards said. "What these results suggest is that those chemicals are leeching through the soil into the rock underneath and into the local aquifers.  And, as more and more of the toxins drip through the water table, the concentrations are getting stronger and stronger."

A boy in Bhopal carrying water
A boy in Bhopal carrying water

Among the study's findings: carbon tetrachloride in some of Bhopal's drinking water is between 900 and 2,400 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines; and, concentrations of chloroform in the water are double safety limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Another study, by the Center for Science and Environment - a New Delhi-based advocacy group - concludes groundwater three kilometers away from the factory site contains pesticides at 40 times higher than the Indian safety standard. It says all water samples collected from neighborhoods surrounding the plant contain chlorinated benzene compounds and organo-chloride pesticides.

 

Mercury on the grounds of the defunct Union Carbide plant in Bhopal
Mercury on the grounds of the defunct Union Carbide plant in Bhopal

Many people in Bhopal believe certain communities still see a high rate of illness, as well as births of children with physical deformities and mental retardation, because of poisons that remain in the environment.

Indian government officials contend exposure-related health problems are no longer significant and that the plant site is safe. India's government has previously acknowledged that about a half-million people were affected by the 1984 gas cloud.

Bhopal Medical Appeal trustee Tim Edwards says assertions of safety fly in the face of scientific evidence.  

"I'm struck with a sense of absurdity, really, because the same politicians have been party to some of the nearly 15 studies now that are extant describing the extent of contamination," Edwards said.
 
Union Carbide claimed a disgruntled employee sabotaged the plant.  Activists contend a faulty plant design or lax safety standards caused the toxic leak.
 
Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide, eight years ago. The U.S. corporation says legal liabilities ended in 1989, when Union Carbide made a payment settlement of $470 million to the Indian government.


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.
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