Introduction

Before we go for the serious business of accident or disaster causations let examine the Bhopal and Seveso chemical tragedies.

Bhopal, India

December 2/3 night, 1984 was very unfortunate for the city of Bhopal in Madya Pradesh, India. In midnight, a poisonous gas cloud escaped from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide factory. The cloud contained methyl isocyanate (MIC), covering a big area of Bhopal city. The gas leak killed thousands of local residents instantly and caused health problems for millions of people. These health problems killed again thousands of victims in the years that followed. Peoples still suffer from chronic disease consequential to gas exposure, today. Research conducted by numbers of agencies pointed out that this disaster will still cause people to fall ill every year. This event is now known as the worst industrial environmental disaster to ever have occurred in the whole world.

The cause of the accident has been researched after the disaster. Apparently water ended up in MIC storage tanks, causing an exo-thermal reaction that released an amount of poisonous gas large enough to open the safety valves. Normally scrubbers would intercept escaping gas, but these were temporarily out of order for repair.
Research showed that factory personnel neglected a number of safety procedures. There were no valves to prevent water from entering the storage tanks. The cooling installation of the tanks and the flaring installation that might have flared the gas that was released were out of order.

Safety was very low in this factory of Union Carbide, compared to its other locations. The safety procedures were neglected because of budget cuts.

Overview of events that led to the Bhopal disaster

Union Carbide was accused of deliberate evasion of regular safety procedures. During lawsuits where victims demanded compensation, documents were revealed which proved that Union Carbide regularly used untested technology in the Bhopal factory. When the gas leak occurred doctors were not informed of the nature of the gas. This caused the correct treatment and emergency measures to be held off.
Union Carbide denied responsibility for the accident on their website, stating that: The Bhopal plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide India, Limited (UCIL), an Indian company in which Union Carbide Corporation held just over half the stock. The other stockholders included Indian financial institutions and thousands of private investors in India. The plant was designed, built, and managed by UCIL using Indian consultants and workers.

Union Carbide sold the Indian factory to a battery producer. In 2001 Dow Chemical Company took control of Union Carbide. These take-overs led to a discussion on responsibility for cleaning up the tons of poisonous waste that are still present in the environment consequential to the 1984 disaster. Environmental activists are trying to convince Dow Chemical Company to clean up this potential minefield of toxic chemicals. These could cause nervous system failure, liver and kidney disease and possibly cancer for many years to come.

Today, the location is still polluted with thousands of tons of toxic chemicals, such as hexachlorobenzene and mercury. These chemicals are stored in open barrels. Rainfall causes rinsing out of pollution to local drinking water sources. Local residents still suffer from a number of diseases, which appear to be very uncommon among people that do not live in the disaster area.


Seveso, Italy

On midday of July 10, 1976 an explosion occurred in a TCP (2,4,5-trichlorophenol) reactor in one of the chemical companies in Meda, Italy. A toxic cloud escaped into the atmosphere containing high concentrations of TCDD, a highly toxic form of dioxin. Downwind from the factory the dioxin cloud polluted a densely populated area of six kilometres long and one kilometre wide, immediately killing many animals. A neighbouring municipality that was highly affected is called Seveso. The accident was named after this village. The dioxin cloud affected a total of 11 communities.

 

Location of Seveso Italy, Europe

Zones of contamination

The media now mentions Seveso in line with major disasters such as Bhopal and Chernobyl, which have both become international symbols of industrially related disasters. However, the Seveso story is remarkably different when it comes to handling the pollution and the victims because earlier accidents had shown dioxin to be an extremely dangerous substance. Polluted areas were researched and the most severely polluted soils were excavated and treated elsewhere. Health effects were immediately recognized as a consequence of the disaster and victims were compensated. A long-term plan of health monitoring has been put into operation. Seveso victims suffered from a directly visible symptom known as chloracne (see picture), but also from genetic impairments.

 

The Seveso accident and the immediate reaction of authorities led to the introduction of European regulation for the prevention and control of heavy accidents involving toxic substances. This regulation is now known as the Seveso Directive. This Directive is a central guideline for European countries for managing industrial safety. The Council of Ministers of The European Committee adopted the Directive in 1982. It obligates appropriate safety measures, and also public information on major industrial hazards, which is now known as the 'need to know' principle. Bhopal tragedy happened in midnight while Seveso disaster in the midday.

 

 
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