A letter from Bhopal (to Union Carbine
The Story of One Sunday Evening
December 2-3, 1984
At about 10:30 pm during routine maintenance operations in the methyl isocyanate (MIC) plant of Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal, a large quantity of water entered one of the storage tanks through leaking valves and corroded pipes. This triggered a runaway reaction in tank E - 610 containing 60 tonnes of MIC - a lethal chemical with a Threshold Limit Value of 0.02 ppm. The reaction produced enormous heat and pressure and 40 tonnes of a deadly cocktail of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, monomethyl amine, carbon monoxide and possibly 20 other chemicals that spewed forth in the form of dense clouds. Safety systems (that were, in any case, incapable of preventing a runaway reaction) were either switched off, malfunctioning or under repair. A cold and gentle northerly wind carried the clouds over half a million sleeping people. The poison cloud moved like a wall 20 to 30 feet high hugging the ground. By one in the morning an entire city had been turned into a gas chamber.
The siren at the factory had been deliberately shut off so people came to know of the leak only when the poison clouds surrounded them. They woke up coughing, gasping for breath, with their eyes burning like fire. People ran, entire families, holding babies in their arms and little children running alongside. The force of the human torrent of a city trying to escape wrenched children's hands from their parents. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and feces ran down their legs. Some began vomiting uncontrollably, were wracked with seizures and fell dead. The gases caused people's lungs to produce so much fluid that it filled their lungs. They drowned in their own body fluids.
Doctors at Bhopal's hospitals, besieged by dying people, did not know how to treat them. They called Union Carbide's medical officer who said that the gas was akin to tear gas. "All you need to do is wash with water," he said. Meanwhile, the hospital mortuary was overflowing. Graveyards and cremation grounds were unable to cope with the flow and for the next three nights and days mass burials and cremations went on non-stop in different parts of the city. The number of casualties in the immediate aftermath will never be known with certainty, but the most conservative estimates by independent agencies suggest that over 8000 men, women and children were killed within the first three days. The Indian Council of Medical Research, a government agency, concluded that over 520,000 exposed persons had poisons circulating in their bloodstream that caused damage to almost all the systems in the body.
THE STORY OF ONE OF THE HALF MILLION SURVIVORS
I was sleeping with my three children Nazma, Shareef and Iqbal beside me. I woke up with a panic because it felt like some one was choking me. The room was filled with pungent smoke. I thought some one was burning chillies to ward off the evil eye. The smoke got heavier and heavier. My husband and children too got up and started coughing. The children were groaning that they could not bear it. So we carried the children in our arms and joined the surging crowd outside, all trying to get away. People were running blindly. Many were falling down. By then my eyes had become so swollen that I could hardly open them. I had my dupatta [shawl] covering my eyes. I was carrying four year old Nazma and my husband was carrying Shareef who was six and Iqbal who was two years old. I had gone a little distance when Nazma started making gurgling and choking sounds. I pried my eye lids open and saw there was froth coming out of her mouth. I looked around but could not find my husband. So I went inside the nearest house I could spot and asked for some water for Nazma to drink.
In the morning my eldest brother came to fetch me. He took me to the dispensary at the Carbide factory. There they put some drops in my eyes, that's all. My husband who had been looking for me with the children also reached my brother's place. After four days we went back to our own home. The children could not keep any food in, they were vomiting all the time. My eldest son Shareef died after three months. We tried everything to save his life. Took him to different doctors, spent a lot of money but he didn't survive. Three months after that I gave birth to a son. We named him Yosouf. He was born sickly and had strange looking yellow coloured eruptions on his neck. When he was about a year old, I was still breast feeding him, he died in his sleep.
Another daughter was born to me - Shahbano. She too was sick all the time, we lost her too. My son Iqbal is not growing properly, he is 16 years old now but looks like he is 10 or 12. My husband used to carry cement bags before the gas, but he hasn't been able to work. Both of us have this burning in the chest. We went to different private clinics as long as our savings lasted. Doctors charged 50 to 100 rupees for every visit. When we had no money left we had to go the government hospitals. But visiting government hospitals was so tiring and it seemed like a waste of time. The doctors there would write down the medicines we were supposed to take before we even finished telling them about our problems. The tablets they gave me made me feel worse.
In my family I am the only one to get any compensation. I got Rs 15,000/- [about $350]. We spent much more than that on our treatment. I sold off all my jewelry when my son got admitted to the hospital. Also we borrowed a lot of money for our treatment. When I told the judge about our children who died he said I had to get documentary evidence.
All of us in the family remain sick. My husband has spells of unconsciousness. He has also become very irritable and some times gets violent. We could not send our children to school because there was no money. My daughter was so keen to go to school. I worry myself all the time - about my husband, my son's health, my daughter's marriage.
- Hajra Bi, from Ayub Nagar, Bhopal
For the last fifteen years we in Bhopal have been suffering deaths and incurable diseases from the exposure to methyl isocyanate and other gases from your company's factory in our city. Today there are more than 120,000 survivors in Bhopal who have not known any respite from illness since the disaster and are in desperate need of medical attention. 15 years later, 10 to 15 people die every month from exposure-related illnesses. Doctors in Bhopal still do not know the proper treatment for the many exposure-related illnesses. Breathlessness, persistent cough, diminished vision, early-age cataracts, loss of appetite, menstrual irregularities, recurrent fever, neurological disorders, fatigue, weakness, anxiety and depression are the most common symptoms among us survivors. The best treatments provide only temporary relief, if any. The Bhopal Hospital Trust set up by your company is as much in the dark as any of us. We find that many of the drugs being used by the clinics set up by this trust are potentially causing more harm than good to us. One of the major reasons for the lack of proper treatment in Bhopal is that Union Carbide continues to withhold information on the composition of the leaked gases and their effect on human beings. Senior officials of your company claim that medical information on the leaked gases are "trade secrets".
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