Bhopal’s unlikely legacy in the US

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Women protesting at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India (Image: flickr user: obbino (cc: by-sa))

Story by Rhitu Chatterje, PRI's "The World"

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Thousands were killed on December 3, 1984 when a chemical factory in Bhopal India released a cloud of deadly gas. A quarter century after the disaster, toxic chemicals still threaten lives in the developing world.

Join an online discussion on the global regulation of toxic chemicals with Henrik Selin, professor of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book, "Global Governance of Hazardous Chemicals."

The Bhopal disaster alerted the world to the dangers of industrial toxic substances. In the US, it spurred more awareness and subsequently, legislation around industrial hazards:

Cindy Brown walks up to a low-slung concrete building in the small city of Worcester, Massachusetts.  In the 1980s, this was a specialty chemicals factory, and Brown lived just a few blocks away in a dense residential neighborhood.

According to Brown, the factory spewed noxious fumes and particulate matter into the air.  Neighbors grumbled but no one did anything.

"This is Worcester, a very industrial city. I think many of us were very complacent, didn’t think much about what was going on in a plant in our neighborhood," Brown said.

Then, on December 3, 1984, came news of the catastrophic industrial disaster in Bhopal, India. Thousands dead from a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant.  Hundreds of thousands sickened. The events of that day set off long ticking alarms here in Worcester.

Brown and much of the rest of her neighborhood quickly mobilized, and before long, they had forced the company to relocate to a non-residential area. What happened in Brown’s neighborhood in the mid-80s was part of a growing wave that washed across the United States following the Bhopal tragedy.

"People began to look at facilities in their neighborhoods in a different way," said Sanford Lewis, an environmental lawyer who helped Cindy Brown’s community.

Lewis and others say the Bhopal disaster was a sort of tipping point in American awareness of the dangers of industrial chemicals. Memories of similar incidents were fresh in people’s minds, including the dumping of toxic waste by the W. R. Grace Company in Woburn, Massachusetts, and by Hooker Chemical in Love Canal, New York.

"So when the news came about the gas release in Bhopal, that sort of fit into a general anxiety," says Kenneth Geiser, a toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "You know, 'could this happen in my neighborhood?' 'What is that plant doing down the road?'"

Within two years, the growing concern led to major new federal legislation. The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act for the first time gave all communities the right to know about potential industrial hazards, and it helped communities to better prepare for possible industrial accidents.  Kenneth Geiser says the new law also included what was thought at the time to be a relatively small provision called the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).

"Which was to require firms that released chemicals to the environment needed to annually report that to the EPA.  And it turns out to be enormously more chemicals than anyone had dreamed," said Geiser.

The TRI proved to be a powerful tool for communities, and environmental lawyer Sanford Lewis says it proved valuable for industry as well.

"Most companies didn’t know how much of these chemicals they were emitting," said Lewis. "

The risk from industrial chemicals has hardly been eliminated in the U.S. in the 25 years since Bhopal, but it has been generally reduced, and Bhopal was a catalyst for similar changes elsewhere. Europe tightened regulations on the handling and use of industrial chemicals. Labor groups around the world demanded lower risk work environments. And U.N. agencies began pushing for higher awareness and disaster preparedness. 

Geiser: "So when they had to go and figure it out, some companies discovered that they were wasting a lot of product materials. And so, a lot of companies discovered they could save money. So they began to manage the chemicals better."

But what about back in India where the accident actually happened? Bhopal spurred a flurry of new laws and regulations, including India’s first Environmental Protection Act. The shock of Bhopal also reverberated in India’s legal system. That’s according to Shyam Divan, a Senior Advocate of the Indian Supreme Court.

"You had a series of judgments of the Supreme Court, which for example, started shutting down factories which were not complying with environmental standards," said Divan.

Divan says together the legal and regulatory changes following Bhopal had a real impact. "I think at least in so far as the worst type of disasters is concerned this is still sufficient to ensure that those types of tragedies are averted."

But many Indians believe the country isn’t much better off in terms of chemical hazards than it was 25 years ago. They say enforcement of the new laws is lax. And that in a crowded and rapidly industrializing country even more people are living close to potentially dangerous industries. Critics also say that unlike in the U.S. little has changed in regard to emergency preparedness and public information. 

Rabi Agarwal runs an environmental group in New Delhi.  He says Indians remain largely in the dark about chemical hazards. "The lack of public awareness both to put accountability to such processes, but also to cope with such accidents that remains to be very, very poor still."

And Agarwal says until existing laws are enforced and the public is truly aware of the hazards in their back yards, India may remain at risk of many smaller Bhopals.

Join "The World's" online conversation with Henrik Selin — professor of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book, "Global Governance of Hazardous Chemicals." Get the answers to these questions and submit your own:

  • Has the U.S. unfairly exported its toxic risks to other countries?
  • Selin says the World Trade Organization helps regulate the safety of products but not processes. Should that change?
  • How can you ensure that the holiday gifts you buy don’t come from unsafe factories?

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