Bhopal disaster lingers after nearly 15 years

by Danielle Knight

Washington, Jun 22 -- Survivors of one of the world's worst industrial disasters, that struck the Indian city of Bhopal nearly 15 years ago, still suffered from the effects of toxic gas, according to visiting Bhopal community health workers.

The accident at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal in December 1984 released a deadly cloud of gas that killed more than 8,000 people within 48 hours.

Today, the worst was far from over as more than 50,000 residents people were still suffering from illnesses related to exposure to the gas, said workers from a non-profit health clinic in Bhopal, who are touring the United States to raise awareness about the ongoing health impacts of the accident.

"Diseases of the eyes, lungs, kidneys, liver, intestines, muscles, brain and reproductive and immune systems continue to ravage their lives," said Satinath Sarangi, a managing trustee of the Sambhavna Trust which operates the Bhopal People's Health and Documentation Clinic.

Each month, 10 to 15 people died from illnesses related to the accident, said Sarangi whose clinic provides daily free care to some 40-80 gas victims.

The rate of tuberculosis among people exposed to the gas was four times higher than the national average, he said. "Many have chronic chest pains and asthma," said Sarangi.

Immediately after the accident, many pregnant women aborted while the babies of other women were still born.

Sarangi described what he called ongoing "menstrual chaos" amongst girls and women who were exposed to the toxic gas. "It is now common for women exposed to reach menopause at age 27 to 30," he said. "Girls who were exposed before they reached puberty who are now 14 to 18 years old are experiencing short and painful menstrual cycles."

Union Carbide spokesman Tom Sprick, however, maintained that the lingering effects of the disaster were not as severe as stated by Sarangi.

Sprick told IPS that studies by the World Health Organisation and other institutions found that "permanent damage is limited to a very small percentage of the exposed population and that the lungs and to a lesser extent the eyes are the only organs that sustained permanent damage."

Union Carbide claimed the accident was a result of sabotage by a disgruntled employee, while human rights organisations and health activists held the company responsible and continued to press for legal action.

Under the terms of a $470 million settlement, worked out between Union Carbide and the Indian government in 1989, each victim was to receive about $500.

"This pittance hasn't even covered five years of medical expenses," said Sarangi, who added that even the $500 payments had not yet been paid to all those who suffered. The majority of the victims live way below the poverty line, he said. "There only source of income, physical labour, is now beyond their capacity."

Sprick admitted that "Union Carbide has no actual way to know how much money has been paid or how many victims or their families have received money."

Because of the unsatisfactory results of the settlement, the clinic and other organisations - including the International Coalition for Justice in Bhopal - have pushed ahead with claims against the firm to ensure that "there are no more Bhopal disasters."

"The settlement meant nothing to Union Carbide's bottom line," Sarangi told IPS. "When the deal was announced, the company value increased by two dollars a share."

In 1996, an international coalition of doctors known as the International Medical Commission on Bhopal, charged that lack of cooperation by the Indian government and Union Carbide had kept secret much of the information on the types and amount of chemicals that had been released.

One known component was Methyl Iso Cyanate, which can cause neurological damage and, while the company denied the charges of secrecy, Sarangi said that Union Carbide refused to reveal what were the other components of the toxic gas cloud.

As many as 30 different chemicals - all posing different health risks - may have been released, he said.

"Many of the synergistic health impacts of these chemicals are not known," said Sarangi, who also planned to visit with toxicologists in the United States during his trip to learn what would be the best way to treat people.

"Because many doctors in India don't know how to treat these illnesses, there is a lot of over-drugging of patients who can afford the medicine," he added. In one incident reported by the Commission, a patient received 87 prescriptions for his symptoms in one year.

To help bring the issue into the spotlight, international human rights and environment organisations are preparing a day of action on Dec. 3, the 15th anniversary of the accident.

Sarangi hoped it would provide the impetus for organising action against the threat of toxic pollution that faced thousands of communities around the world.

"What is good is that the struggle for justice is still going on," said Sarangi. "There are ongoing public meetings and protests by victims who demand that Union Carbide be punished. It is our struggle against forgetting." (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).