Some stories are hard to believe simply because they carry truths that stagger the senses.
Here’s one that can be summed up in a single sentence: After a factory causes the death of thousands of people, the corporate owner shuts it down and moves out leaving behind a toxic wasteland that continues to kill people 26 years later.
Can’t happen? Well it did; and the death and suffering continue today.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of December 3, 1984, something went very badly wrong at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India; a city with a population of more than 900,000. An out-of-control reaction in a storage tank caused a relief valve to blow open, allowing a cloud of toxic gas to escape into the outside air. The gas was mostly methyl isocyanate, a chemical used to make insecticide. By the time the reaction finally stopped some two hours later, about 40 tons of the gas had escaped.
The released gas stayed close to the ground and immediately began drifting towards a sleeping shantytown bordering the factory. No one knows for sure when the first cry of panic came from there, but it was most likely within 20 minutes after the valve blew. The effects of the gas were instant and terrible. It burned the eyes and produced a scalding pain in the mouth, throat, and lungs. Inhaling the gas was like breathing acid. And the acid was everywhere.
Not knowing what was happening, terrified mother and fathers picked up children and ran outside. But the air out there was no better, and the shantytown was quickly in chaos. The quiet night had become a raging nightmare, one that only the most unlucky of unlucky could ever understand.
Many soon suffocated, as seared lungs filled with fluids. Alleys and streets began filling with bodies. Carcasses of dogs, cats, cattle, goats, and sheep added to the hellish scene. Birds fell dead to the ground.
The gas didn’t stop at the shantytown. It kept moving, working its way into other neighborhoods, where the horror continued. More than 15 square miles of Bhopal were affected.
By morning, most of the gas had dissipated, but Bhopal was a very different city. Half the population had fled. Estimate vary on the number of dead and injured, but it is believed at least 3,000 died within hours of the gas release. According to the Bhopal Medical Appeal (www.bhopal.org), 8,000 to 10,000 people died within three days. Another 15,000 would die later. More than 500,000 people were declared affected by the gas. Today, 26 years later, some 120,000 residents have chronic medical conditions that require constant health care, all believed related to the gas exposure.
If you think the story can’t get worse; think again. The factory site was never adequately cleaned up, so it has remained a toxic wasteland for 26 years. Now the groundwater around the site is contaminated with chemicals that are either known or suspected carcinogens.
Some of those chemicals are there in massive quantities. For example, recent tests show carbon tetrachloride -- a chemical suspected to cause cancer -- at 2,400 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.
As always, it’s the poorest of the poor who must live near such poison pits. And they have little choice but to use the polluted water for drinking and cooking. The Indian government has a program to provide clean water to the area, but reports indicate it’s far from adequate.
In 1989, Union Carbide paid $470 million to settle the case, an amount that, on average, provided about $550 to each victim. The value of a life or a lifetime of physical suffering was reduced to a pittance.
Union Carbide sold the Bhopal factory in 1994. In 1999, Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide. Between the years 2005 and 2009, according to Fortune magazine, the average profit of Dow Chemical was nearly $3 billion per year. That means, each year, Dow gets to bank about six times the amount paid to settle the Bhopal disaster.
Going all the way back to the disaster in 1984, activists have tried to get Union Carbide and Dow to do right by Bhopal. No one but Dow thinks $550 is fair compensation. And no one thinks it’s right to leave behind a chemical cesspool that kills people every year.
Dow argues it didn’t own Union Carbide back in 1984. And they blame the Indian government for some of the current problems. Both claims are true enough. But Dow owns Union Carbide now. And now it needs to buck up and do the right thing.
Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org) states that Dow could forever help Bhopal by doing two things; (1) assume liability for the loss of livelihood caused as a result of the disaster by providing income opportunities to victims and support to those rendered destitute, and (2) remove the contamination of the ground water and soil in and around the factory.
Of course, no one expects Dow to voluntarily embrace the Greenpeace proposal. Dow has shown no interest in the subject. The Bhopal story has been told hundreds of times, by activist organizations and a long list of newspapers and magazines, and several books. Dow doesn’t pay attention.
So I have a suggestion. Since moral arguments don’t penetrate the walls of Dow’s corporate headquarter, let's stop preaching morality and start talking dollars and cents, a subject they fully understand and dearly love.
This is what we tell them: We won’t buy Dow products until the company does right by Bhopal. Perhaps, if we all pull together, we can create a small but noticeable downtick in Dow’s sales and profits. And, maybe, just maybe, it will be enough of a tick to cause Dow to grow a conscience.
In the end, both Bhopal and Dow will be the better for it.
Dow Products You Don’t Want To Buy
Here’s a list of Dow products you’re likely to come across at a hardware store or home center. Help the people of Bhopal by asking for a substitute product.
Use: Winterization fluid for RV’s, vacation homes, boats, and swimming pools.
Substitute: Any propylene glycol product made for the above applications.
Use: Polyurethane expansion foam
Substitute: Touch ’n Foam (www.touch-n-foam.com)
Use: Rigid foam insulation used in building construction
Substitute: Formular 150 (www.owenscorning.com)
Use: Weather-resistant insulating wrap used in building construction
Substitute: Tyvek (www.dupont.com) or Pinkwrap (www.owenscorning.com)
Also, many Dow chemicals go into products made by other manufactures. For a list of all Dow products, go to www.dow.com/products_services/az.htm.