Bhopal gas leak survivors still being poisoned: Study

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

BHOPAL - The waste left behind at the Union Carbide factory that was closed 25 years ago after a fatal gas leak is continuing to poison people around the plant, says the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

“Latest tests show that groundwater in areas even three km from the factory contains almost 40 times more pesticides than Indian standards,” CSE Director Sunita Narain said here Tuesday, a day before the 25th anniversary of the gas leak that killed 3,500 people at once and maimed thousands more.

The pollution monitoring lab of the Delhi-based think tank, CSE, has tested water and soil samples from in and around the closed factory and found high concentrations of pesticides and heavy metals inside the factory as well as in the groundwater outside.

Union Carbide used to manufacture three different kinds of pesticides at Bhopal: Carbaryl (trade name Sevin), Aldicarb (trade name Temik) and a formulation of Carbaryl and gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane (trade name Sevidol).

While it was the raw material for Sevin, methyl isocyanate, that leaked on the night of Dec 2-3, 1984, all three pesticides used toxic heavy metals like mercury and chromium, most of which are persistent in the soil and groundwater.

“One water and eight soil samples were collected from various places inside the factory in October this year and 11 more water samples came from locations outside — from colonies next to the factory’s boundary to those 3.5 km away and toxins were found in the groundwater checked from almost 3 km from the factory,” CSE Associate Director Chandra Bhushan said at a press conference.

“All 11 groundwater samples collected from colonies around the factory were found to be contaminated with chlorinated benzene compounds and organochlorine pesticides. Carbamates were found in four samples. The concentration of pesticides was 1.1 to 38.6 times higher than the Indian standard,” he said.

“Also, the profile of chemicals found within the factory and in its waste disposal site matched the chemicals found in the groundwater sample in the colonies outside. There is no other source of these chlorinated benzene compounds and pesticides other,” Narain said.

“Our findings suggest that the entire site is highly contaminated. The waste stored within the factory is a small part of the total contamination present in the site. The focus of the government to just dispose off the stored waste and ignore the site contamination problem is, therefore, not going to solve the environmental problems from the UCIL factory.”

Narain explained: “The factory site in Bhopal is leading to chronic toxicity — continuous tiny exposure leading to poisoning of our bodies. This is different from acute poisoning and so the claim that the factory is not dangerous because people can touch the waste is misleading.”

The problem, CSE says, is that the chemicals present in the soil of the factory are leaching into the groundwater and leading to slow poisoning of residents.

The health impact of this slow poisoning will be enormous, she said, adding that Chlorinated benzene compounds (such as di- and tri-chlorobenzene) can affect and damage the liver and blood cells, while organochlorine pesticides can lead to cancers and bone defects.

Health impacts of Carbaryl and Aldicarb include damage to the brain and nervous system and chromosomal abnormalities.

CSE researchers have found that people living around the factory continue to suffer from diseases ranging from chronic ailments to abnormalities. No one, however, is certain how much of it is related to the gas release and how much has been exacerbated because of continuing exposure to toxins.

“The Indian Council for Medical Research was asked to conduct long-term epidemiological research right after the disaster, but these studies were summarily discontinued in 1994. The initial reports suggested long-term and deadly health effects on the survivors,” Narain recalled.

“The entire site of the factory needs to be carefully checked and cleaned up. The cost of such an operation will be very high. Who will pay for this continuing environmental damage?” she asked.

“Dow Chemical Company, which has bought over Union Carbide, says it is not responsible. It wants the high court to delete it from the list of respondents. Based on letters accessed by RTI activists, it is also clear that there is pressure to dilute the liability of Dow Chemicals, arguing that the company had nothing to do with Union Carbide India Limited, which operated the plant.”

This cannot be acceptable, she said, adding: “The toxins we have found in the factory are related to the production process of the plant. It is clear that Union Carbide was dumping its waste — of chemicals and pesticides — in the factory compound over the years it operated the factory. Dow must be held responsible.

“Its own annual report shows that it has taken on the liability of Union Carbide in the case of asbestos exposure in the US. Why is it denying this responsibility in India?”

Filed under: Cancer, Environment, Medicine

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