‘Why didn’t Carbide alert Bhopal on do’s and don’ts after gas exposure?’
As India relives the horror of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster in the wake of the June 7 court verdict, a Canadian scientist of Indian origin has squarely blamed Union Carbide for not alerting the public about basic do’s and don’ts in the aftermath of such toxic exposure. Had that been done, the damage would have been far less, he said in an exclusive interview with this newspaper.
In a study conducted soon after the world’s worst industrial disaster, Dr Daya Ram Varma, professor emeritus at Montreal’s McGill University, found that 73 per cent of Bhopal’s pregnant mice exposed to methyl isocyanate (MIC) lost their foetuses. That confirmed what Indian doctors had found among human victims of the gas leak from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, and refuted the contention of the UCC’s team of medical doctors who initially argued that the poisonous gas did not reach internal organs. That, and the absence of any knowledge among the victims around the plant of what they should do in the case of a gas leak show systemic problems that have not been addressed even 25 years after the holocaust, despite the fact that the gas leak is in the news again, for all the wrong reasons
“Union Carbide did not challenge me. Indeed, Union Carbide did not pursue its contention that MIC would not produce systemic effects. This was stated only once at a press conference on December 14 in Bhopal by a team of four members representing Union Carbide. The statement was made by one Dr H. Weill of the Pulmonary Disease Section of Tulane Medical Centre, New Orleans,” Dr Varma pointed out in an exclusive interview.
The research by Dr Varma and his colleagues, funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and quoted in almost all publications dealing with medical consequences in Bhopal, raises key issues about the health effects of the methyl isocyanate gas leak exposure. They are as relevant to the raging debate today about corporate liability as about Union Carbide’s role in alerting the public on the toxic effects of MIC.
Would the outcomes have been different had the medical consequences of the disaster been fully known? “If authorities in Bhopal or West Virginia had announced immediately that people should not run away, and try to cover their faces with wet cloth, both immediate and long-term consequences would have been much less. In the process of running, people inhaled more of the poison. If you recall, house flies were not affected; everything else was. People should have also been advised to lie as close to the ground as possible with a wet cloth on their face. I am also convinced that the health effects were due to methyl isocyanate (MIC) and not anything else, and not due to hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Even if some HCN was formed it could not be of much consequence because it is not sufficiently toxic; you need nearly 300 ppm HCN to be fatal. When HCN is in high enough concentration, it kills very fast (less than three hours), and all deaths would have taken place by the morning of December 3. Cyanide is not known to produce long-term effects,” said Dr Varma.
Union Carbide had another plant in West Virginia making the same insecticide, Sevin, that it used to make in Bhopal. Dr Varma spoke about HCN because in the aftermath of the Bhopal leak, some doctors had theorised that MIC had changed to HCN on exposure to air and it was the HCN that killed people on the night of December 2-3, 1984.
“Given the confusion, the medical staff in Bhopal did exemplary work and whatever they did (like giving atropine) did much good. What Bhopal’s doctors could not do because of logistics was to give positive pressure respiration with oxygen. That requires one setup per person,” Dr Varma added.
Dr Varma, who was born in Uttar Pradesh and studied medicine at K.G. Medical College, Lucknow, went to Canada to do his Ph.D. He first visited Bhopal in early January 1985, about a month after the disaster. The purpose of his research was two-fold.
First, he and his colleagues wanted to find out if the disaster affected pregnancy outcomes in the hope that supporting scientific evidence would help victims seeking compensation. Second, they wanted to test if Union Carbide was correct in arguing that MIC does not affect the body’s internal systems. “A team of medical experts sent by the US Carbide contended in Bhopal that MIC is very reactive and, therefore, it would be destroyed on body surface and not reach inside body via circulation. If this contention of Union Carbide doctors was correct, the disaster should have no effect on pregnancy outcomes. My view was that lungs provide such a large surface for drug absorption that MIC will enter circulation despite its very high chemical reactivity,” Dr Varma told this newspaper.
Dr Varma set out to prove UCC wrong and followed pregnancies in Bhopal as well as studied the effect of MIC on mice. “Anyone who has followed the course of pregnancy in Bhopal or done experimental studies has confirmed our findings, or you can say we have confirmed their findings; no one though has done as elaborate studies in mice as we have done.” Dr Varma acknowledged that he had got interested in the gas disaster as it had happened in his home country. “If it happened elsewhere, I would have wished someone did the research, but I would not have been the one.” Two Indian filmmakers, Tapan Bose and Suhasini Mulay, who were Dr Varma’s friends and were familiar with Bhopal, helped him with logistical support during his research.
Dr Varma refuses to comment on the recent judgment by the local court in Bhopal, but draws attention to some issues which are hugely relevant for an emerging economy with expanding industrialisation, but without concurrent evolution in safety regulations.
“There is no way of balancing punishment and consequences of the tragedy. But one needs to investigate how the accident actually happened. One needs to find out why slips were not placed on joints in the pipe connected with MIC storage tanks when the floor was being washed. The court should have given its view about the precautions that need to be taken in running hazardous industries, and which ought to be implemented by the government of India.”
The retired scientist, who is still engaged in collaborative research projects, believes that “hazardous industries in Indian settings, where rules are lax, should be operated by the state where profit is not a consideration.”
Patralekha Chatterjee writes about development issues in India and emerging economies, and can be
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