Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Three Mile Island

What was the worst industrial accident?

It was the gas leak at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, on December 3, 1984. At about 12:30 A.M., methyl isocyanate (MIC), a deadly gas, began escaping from the pesticide plant, and it spread southward, eventually covering approximately 15 square miles. Within a few hours, thousands of Bhopal residents were affected by the asphyxiating gas. General symptoms included severe chest congestion, vomiting, paralysis, sore throat, chills, coma, fever, swelling of legs, impaired vision, and palpitations. Estimates of the total death toll range from the official government estimate between 3,000 and 10,000, a figure based on what medical professionals described. In total, 200,000 people were directly or indirectly affected by the poisonous gas.

Within hours of the accident Bhopal police moved into action, closing the plant and arresting its manager and four of his assistants. The five men were charged with “culpable homicide through negligence.” Union Carbide dispatched a team of technical experts from its Danbury, Connecticut, headquarters, but upon arrival at the plant, they were turned away by local authorities. Meanwhile, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation seized the plant’s records and log books and ordered an inquiry into the accident. Union Carbide’s chief executive officer Warren M. Anderson flew to Bhopal, but he was promptly arrested, along with two officials of the company’s Indian subsidiary. The corporate executives were charged with seven offenses including criminal conspiracy, culpable homicide not amounting to murder, making the atmosphere noxious to health, and causing death by negligence. Anderson was later released on bond.

Upon learning of the horrific accident, U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) sent a message conveying the grief shared by him and the American people. Multinational corporations, including Union Carbide, were vilified in the press; the Soviet news agency accused such companies of marketing “low-quality products and outdated technology to developing countries.” Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (1944–1991) of India visited the disaster site and announced immediate creation of a $4-million relief fund for victims; he also vowed that he would prevent multinational corporations from setting up “dangerous factories” in India.

The implications of the industrial accident were many. It prompted public scrutiny of safety systems at chemical plants around the globe. Given the number of plants where poisonous chemicals are produced and stored, some observers believe chemical accidents could happen as often as once in every 10 years. Union Carbide, of course, suffered financially; the stock dropped more than 12 points, wiping out 27 percent, or almost $1 billion, of its market value, in about one week. Damage claims were filed in behalf of the victims, with noted American criminal attorney Melvin Belli filing one of them in the amount of $15 billion.

In addition to the thousands who died in Bhopal, others suffered from long-term effects including chronic lesions of the eyes, permanent scarring of the lungs, and injuries to the liver, brain, heart, kidneys, and the immune system. In the years after the accident, studies showed that the rate of spontaneous abortions and infant deaths in Bhopal were three to four times the regional rate.


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