Professionalism/Union Carbide and Bhopal

In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, 41 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. [1] The poisonous gas quickly spread over surrounding areas, leaving close to 3,500 immediately dead in its wake.[2] Many survivors were injured by the toxic effects of the gas. The consequences remain evident today, not only in the birth defects afflicting victims' children, but also in the large amounts of chemicals polluting the city's food and water supplies.[3]

A memorial for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy located near the UCIL factory in Bhopal

The Bhopal disaster is considered the world's worst industrial catastrophe. [4] Accounts disagree on the exact causes of the event, but evidence points to several questionable decisions by Union Carbide Corporation as the catalyst for the disastrous sequence of events. [5]


Union Carbide and UCILEdit

Union Carbide Corporation is a chemical and polymers company known for its products such as paints, packaging, wire and cable, household products, personal care, and pharmaceuticals. [6] In 1934, Union Carbide became one of the first United States corporations to invest in India with the establishment of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). [7] The UCIL factory in Bhopal was built in 1969 to process and distribute the pesticide Sevin (Union Carbide's brand name for carbaryl). The pesticide was necessary to help increase agricultural productivity at a time when India's population was growing at an incredible rate.[1][8]

Process 1 for producing Carbaryl
Process 2: Alternative synthesis of carbaryl

There are two primary ways to produce carbaryl:

  • Process 2 changes the reaction sequence of process 1 and avoids using MIC.

Process 1, the cheaper of the two methods, was adopted by Union Carbide in the mid-1960's. Initially, MIC was imported to the Bhopal plant. By 1979, due to competitive and political pressures, the plant began to manufacture MIC to increase production.[8]

Methyl IsocyanateEdit

Methyl isocyanate or MIC, is a highly reactive liquid. [9] It reacts with water to produce non-toxic ureas and large amounts of carbon dioxide. [9] Exposure to MIC may affect the eyes, lungs, and skin. [9] Exposure to high concentrations of MIC gas can result in fatal damage to the lungs. [10]

Aziza Sultan's, a survivor, account of the effects of MIC:

“At about 12.30 am I woke to the sound of my baby coughing badly. In the half light I saw that the room was filled with a white cloud. I heard a lot of people shouting. They were shouting ‘run, run’. Then I started coughing with each breath seeming as if I was breathing in fire. My eyes were burning.” [11]

Another survivor, Champa Devi Shukla said:

“It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain.” [11]

Plant's LocationEdit

UCIL's pesticide plant was located in the center of Bhopal close to a railway station. When they built a MIC unit, they were offered a site outside the town. [12] However, they insisted on using the existing site due to its proximity to the railway station. [12] By 1984, Bhopal's population has grown to 800,000 and there were now residential areas around the plant. [13] Moreover, heavily populated slums had cropped up in its vicinity. [13] Despite the aforementioned factors, there was no evacuation plan for the neighboring communities in case of an emergency. [14]

Events that led to the disasterEdit

Although the exact events leading up to the disaster are still disputed, the findings of an Indian government investigation provide the most compelling theory for what happened. A routine maintenance procedure was denoted as the ultimate cause of the accident. Around 8:00 pm on 2 December, 1984, while a worker washed some of the plant's piping, several drainage nozzles for the water were blocked by debris. The backlog of water forced it back into the plant's main piping system, leaving it free to flow throughout the plant. At about 11:00 pm, the water entered one of the de-pressurized storage tanks for MIC.[12][15]

The combination of water and MIC produced an exothermic reaction that quickly grew out of control. Within two hours, the immense heat and pressure from the reaction triggered an emergency release valve, allowing 41 tons of excess MIC to escape into the Bhopal atmosphere. [1] At this point, the plant technicians could do nothing to prevent the deadly gases from being blown over the surrounding areas.[12][15][16]

The failed maintenance procedure does not fully explain the magnitude of the disaster and several hidden causes of the leak can be traced to UCIL management practices that had been accumulating years before the event.

Plant's Management and Working ConditionsEdit

In the early 1980's, the UCIL plant was running at a loss due to reduced pesticide demands. Union Carbide decided to have it shut down and sold. To remain profitable, the plant's management began to make risky decisions that put the facility and its workers in danger. They ignored several important safety and maintenance protocols. [12][5]

Risky ManagementEdit
  • Company manuals were only available in English even though many Indian employees did not speak the language. Moreover, these manuals were kept with the manager and the workers were not permitted to take them outside the premises. [13]
  • Staffing policies became highly political:
  • Promotions were granted to individuals who demonstrated loyalty to the bosses even if they had little experience. [13]
  • Demand for extra safety precautions by the employees led to warnings of termination or salary reductions. [13]
  • Due to these policies and deteriorating work conditions, most of the original MIC operators resigned to seek employment elsewhere. [13]
  • In 1982, a Union Carbide audit report from India indicated that workers' performance was below American standards. [12]
  • In 1983 and 1984, the number of personnel was reduced to cut costs. Plant workers and operators were given more responsibility than they were trained to or had the competence to handle. Moreover, vacant positions in the MIC plant were filled by unskilled workers from shut down parts of the plant.[13]
Negligent Safety PracticesEdit

From its establishment, the Bhopal plant had problems with its design and operating safety that included numerous negligent practices. As management and economic pressures increased, many critical safety systems were bypassed or shut down. Had some of these systems been in place, the severity of the disaster could have been reduced. [15]

  • During cleaning procedures, a thin piece of steel, called a slip blind, should be inserted in between the connecting pipes, but this safety feature was often ignored because it took two hours to install. A former engineers of Bhopal plant, Kamal Pareek, said, “...if one of these small pieces of steel had been inserted into the process pipeline, this disaster probably would not have happened.” [15]
  • The main control room that monitored the plant’s activities had faulty equipment due to lack of maintenance. Since the gauges often gave false readings, workers did not take the readings very seriously. [15]
  • The MIC tank alarms had been malfunctioning for four years. [15]

Backup procedures were originally put into place to control an accidental reaction between MIC and water:

  • A large refrigeration system, specifically intended to slow an exothermic MIC reaction, was permanently disabled to cut costs. [15]
  • The vent gas scrubber, used to neutralize toxic gas before escaping into the environment, was switched off that night for maintenance. Even if it had been on, it was too small to neutralize 41 tons of MIC.[15]
  • The flare tower, designed to burn off toxic gas, had a connecting pipe removed for maintenance 5 months prior to the accident. [17]

Pre-Disaster Warnings and Past IncidentsEdit

A series of serious accidents had occurred before the Bhopal gas disaster. According to Russell Mokhiber of Multinational Monitor, these accidents "...should have tipped off corporate executives at world headquarters in the United States that something was wrong in India." [18]

  • On December 26, 1981, a phosgene gas leak killed plant operator Mohammed Ashraf. [18]
  • Another phosgene gas leak in January 1982 seriously injured 28 people. [18]
  • On April 22, 1982, three electrical operators were severely burned while working on a control system panel. [18]
  • On October 5, 1982, MIC leaked from a broken valve seriously injuring four workers. People in the surrounding areas also experienced burning eyes and troubled breathing trouble due to the MIC exposure. Two similar incidents were again reported in 1983. [18]
  • In September 1984, an internal report on the Virginia plant in USA warned that "a runaway reaction could occur in the MIC unit storage tanks, and that the planned response would not be timely or effective enough to prevent catastrophic failure of the tanks". Despite the identical design of the Bhopal plant, this reported was never forwarded to them. [12]

Following these accidents, the issue of possible danger to Bhopal from this plant was raised in the State Legislative Assembly. An accident investigation committee concluded that "... there was no danger to Bhopal nor will there ever be!". [1]

Aftermath and ConsequencesEdit

Abandoned Bhopal Plant

The aftermath has made the Bhopal gas disaster the " Hiroshima of the chemical industry." [19] 520,000 people were exposed to MIC, with 8,000 dying in the first few weeks and 100,000 permanently injured or disabled. [20] It has caused blindness, cataracts, chemical burns, breathing problems, severe abdominal pain, increased infant mortality, reproductive problems, and genetic mutations. [21] Some of these effects continue to this day. [2]

People of Bhopal outraged by the disaster

Indian Supreme Court ordered Union Carbide Corporation to pay a $470 million settlement to the Indian government, despite deferring responsibility of the disaster to UCIL and insisting it was an act of sabotage by a disgruntled worker. [22] [23] On June 7, 2010, 8 former plant workers were convicted to 2 years in prison for "death by negligence" in the gas leak. [2] Amnesty International described the convictions as "too little, too late" and the people of Bhopal felt a sense of betrayal and outrage. This was not the justice they had been waiting for since "...the principal accused- Warren Anderson, Union Carbide Corporation USA" was not there. [24]

The Bhopal plant has been abandoned since the disaster. The Indian state government of Madhya Pradesh took over the plant in 1998. [25] [6] All the harmful chemicals still remain inside the plant. The surrounding areas have been labeled as "global toxic hot-spots" and declared unfit for any kind of use. [26] The groundwater has been found to be contaminated with high concentrations of mercury, that are much higher than the World Health Organization's recommended limits, along with large amounts of other poisonous chemicals and metals. [26] Therefore, people in surrounding areas are still facing health issues 26 years later due to water contamination. [25] According to Paul Watson with Common Dreams, "Today the plant is a rusting hulk of ruptured tanks and empty buildings with broken windows..." [23] Since 1999 Union Carbide has been a subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company, which claims it is not liable for the abandoned plant waste. [22]

Wall painting outside Union Carbide Bhopal Plant

Quotes from SurvivorsEdit

  • "If they had [sounded the sirens] before or just after the gas leaked out, we would have known what to do," said one survivor. "We'd at least have had a chance to run. I lost my wife and two sons only because they didn't warn us. These people are criminals, butchers, worse than murderers." [18]
  • "I hear sounds in my mind. I only feel like staying in a lonely room. I can't stand going into a crowd." -Sunil Verma [23]
  • "I'm running out of breath. I'm just waiting for God to come and take me away. Instead of living like this, it's better to die." -Ram Kuwar Bai [23]


25 years of suffering

December 3, 2009 marked the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Today, over 26 years later, the survivors are still awaiting justice. Many victims continue to fight for compensation in U.S. and Indian courts, with only 9% of those affected receiving any monetary reparations. [27] They complain that the average compensation of $580 cannot even cover the loans many took out to pay medical bills, funeral costs, and other expenses. [23] The victims of the world's worst industrial disaster are still suffering today.

There is dispute over who was responsible for the disaster - UCIL or Union Carbide Corporation. It seems that Union Carbide, being the parent company and 51% shareholder in UCIL, had the ethical responsibility to keep the Bhopal's plant safe and up to the American standards or shut it down altogether. [12] Union Carbide deferred the blame to UCIL saying it was not responsible for maintenance of the safety systems of UCIL's Bhopal's plant. [12] However, it is interesting to note that Union Carbide "...chose all production processes, supplied all plant designs and designated procedures. UCC [Union Carbide Corporation] also conducted safety audits." [12] In either case, many accidents and reports indicated the plant's deteriorating condition and negligent safety practices but no corrective action was taken by either company.

As mentioned in this chapter, multiple events and incidents led to the ultimate catastrophe. It has been said that had each circumstance occured independently, the accident never would have occurred, sparing thousands of innocent lives and those who continuing suffering. [15]


  1. a b c d Bisarya, R. K., & Puri, S. (2005).The Bhopal gas tragedy - A perspective, Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, 18, 209-212. Retrieved from ScienceDirect.
  2. a b c BBC News, Bhopal trial: Eight convicted over India gas disaster.
  3. LAist, Remembering Bhopal: 24 Years Ago Today.
  4. The Telegraph, Bhopal gas disaster's legacy lives on 25 years later.
  5. a b Kovel, J (2002). The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?. London: Zed Books.
  6. a b Union Carbide Corporation, About Us.
  7. Bhopal Information Center - Chronology, Chronology of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
  8. a b D'Silva, Themistocles (2006). The Black Box of Bhopal: A Closer Look at the World's Deadliest Industrial Disaster. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford.
  9. a b c Methyl Isocyanate
  10. Methyl Isocyanate Facts
  11. a b The 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal
  12. a b c d e f g h i j Eckerman, Ingrid (2001). Chemical Industry and Public Health — Bhopal as an Example. Essay for MPH, Nordic School of Public Health, Göteborg, Sweden
  13. a b c d e f g h Eckerman, I. (2005). The Bhopal saga: causes and consequences of the world's largest industrial disaster
  14. Chouhan, T.R. (2005). The unfolding of Bhopal disaster, Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industries, 18, 205-208. Retrieved from ScienceDirect.
  15. a b c d e f g h i National Geographic. Seismic Seconds: The Bhopal Gas Disaster. Retrieved 4/28/2010 from
  16. Eckerman, Ingrid (2005). "The Bhopal gas leak: Analyses of causes and consequences by three different models." Journal of Loss Prevention in the process industry 18: 213–217.
  17. The Bhopal Medical Appeal, What Happened?.
  18. a b c d e f Multinational Monitor, Union Carbide and the Devastation of Bhopal.
  19. Boston Globe, Bhopal's Poisonous Legacy, December 2, 2004.
  20. [1], The Bhopal Disaster, 1984 - Eckerman.
  21. Safety Blog, Bhopal-20 Years on.
  22. a b Centre for Science and Environment: Key legal cases on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and its aftermath
  23. a b c d e Common Dreams: Cloud of Despair in Bhopal
  24. BBC News: Bhopal gas leak convictions not enough, say campaigners
  25. a b PRI's: The World - Bhopal disaster: 25 years later
  26. a b New Internationalist Magazine: Anniversary of Bhopal Gas disaster
  27. NDTV: Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Victims still await justice