The Bhopal Disaster, 25 Years Later

In the night of December 3, 1984 forty tons of methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic chemical used to produce pesticides, leaked from a chemical plant belonging to Union Carbide (now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical) in Bhopal, India, that by some estimates killed 8,000 people within three days and affected over 500,000 residents of the area. Over 15,000 more people died of the consequences of gas exposure in the years that followed. Today, with the plant’s toxic waste site still not cleaned up, people in Bhopal are drinking very toxic water. Recently published reports from accredited laboratories in Switzerland and the UK found 15 highly toxic chemicals in the groundwater of Bhopal whose levels greatly exceed the safe levels recommended by the WHO, in some cases over a thousandfold. Most of these chemicals could be neurotoxic and damage the brain and other internal organs. The incidence of children born with congenital birth defects linked to their parents’ exposure to the gas is ten times higher in Bhopal than in other localities with matching socioeconomic factors.

Why is it that, 25 years after the disaster, those who survived the tragedy have received only an indecently low compensation (no more than $1,000 per person who lost their livelihood due to the gas)? Why does the site still remain massively contaminated, and why is the toxic waste allowed to seep into the groundwater more and more every year? While many answers are possible, one of the main factors is that Union Carbide, as well as it current owner, Dow Chemical, have failed to take responsibility for the disaster, which was caused by the use of untested technology and cost-cutting on safety measures. The CEO of Union Carbide at the time, Warren Anderson, is an absconder from justice. Meanwhile, Dow Chemical, the current owner of Union Carbide, is trying to continue its “business as usual” and pretend that it only acquired Union Carbide’s assets, not its liabilities, despite international trade laws.

A lot of discussion has appeared in the recent issues about MIT accepting funding from Jeffery Picower’s estate. Meanwhile, MIT’s Chemistry and Chemical Engineering departments (and possibly many others) are getting regular funding from Dow Chemical, and there is no discussion about those funds. If MIT as an institution decided that it would only accept funding from Dow Chemical after they pay for the cleanup of the plant site in Bhopal, as the Indian courts are demanding, and if you as an individual pledge not to work for Dow Chemical until that happens, then the residents of Bhopal will get one step closer to justice, which they have been bravely and tirelessly demanding over the past quarter-century.

Leonid Chindelevitch is a graduate student in Course XVIII.