Bhopal Gas Tragedy and Its Ethical Issues

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  • Topic: Bhopal disaster, Dow Chemical Company, Bhopal
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CASE STUDIES:
BHOPAL GAS TRAGEDY AND ITS ETHICAL ISSUES

SUMMARY

Bhopal Gas Tragedy was a gas leak incident in India, considered one of the world’s worst industrial catastrophes. It occurred on the night of the last year of 1984 at the Bhopal Union Carbide Corporation (Union Carbide India Limited – UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. A leak of methyl isocyanides gas and other chemicals from the plant resulted in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people. It also causes environmental issues such as pollution of soil and water. The gas leak in India was caused by bad maintenance and failure of several safety systems to cut off the expenses.

HISTORY

Bhopal is a city in central India with population of 800,000 people in 1984. At that time, home to the largest mosque in India, Bhopal was a major railway junction. Its main industries consisted of manufacturing heavy electrical equipment, weaving and printing cotton cloth, and milling flour.

In 1969, American Union Carbide Corporation, a company headquartered in Danbury, Connecticut, reached an agreement with the Indian government for the construction of a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Union Carbide would hold a 51 percent interest in the plant through its share of ownership of an Indian subsidiary of American Union Carbide. The agreement was seen as a win–win situation.

India would have the plant and its jobs as well as the production of produce pesticides, a product needed badly by Indian farmers in order to increase agricultural productivity. In addition, Union Carbide also agreed that it would use local managers, who would be provided with the necessary skills and management training so that the plant would be truly locally operated.

The plant used methyl isocyanides (MIC) gas as part of the production process for the pesticides. MIC is highly toxic and reacts strongly with other agents, including water. Operation of a plant with MIC processes requires detailed monitoring as well as security processes to prevent sabotage.

While the plant began operations with high hopes, by 1980 the relationships were strained because the plant was not profitable. Union Carbide had asked the Indian government for permission to close the plant but the government felt the products from the plant as well as the jobs were needed for the Indian economy.

Sometime in the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, MIC stored in a tank at the Bhopal plant came in contact with water, and the result was a boiling effect in the tank. The back-up safety systems at the plant, including cooling components for the tanks, did not work. The result was the toxic mixture began to leak and workers at the plant felt a burning sensation in their eyes. The boiling of the water and MIC caused the safety valves on the tank to explode. Following the explosion, the white smoke from the lethal mixture escaped through a smoke stack and began to spread across the area to the city of Bhopal.

As the gas spread, it wove its way through the shanty towns that were located near the plant. The occupants of these shanty towns were Bhopal’s poorest. As the gas floated through these makeshift neighborhoods, 3,500 lives were lost and 200,000 were injured. The injuries included blindness, burns, and lesions in the respiratory system.

The initial deaths and injuries were followed by long-term health effects. Of the women who were pregnant and exposed to the MIC, one-fourth either miscarried or had babies with birth defects. Children developed chronic respiratory problems. Smaller children who survived the toxic gas were sick for months and, weak from a lack of nutrition and ongoing illnesses, also died. MIC also produced strange boils on the bodies of many residents, boils that could not be healed. The problem of tuberculosis in the area was exacerbated by the lung injuries caused by the leaking MIC.

In the year following the accident, the Indian government spent $40...
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