Module 21: History of Major Environmental Disasters and the Health Impact

An environmental disaster is caused by human activity, and is therefore different from a a natural disaster which is caused by natural forces such as an earthquake or a tornado. Environmental disasters affect agriculture, biodiversity, the economy, and human health. This module discusses a couple of the major environmental disasters that have had an enormous impact on human health.

The Bhopal Disaster(1) 

On December 3, 1984 more than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India.  In the 1970s, the Indian government had initiated policies to encourage foreign companies to invest in local industry. A plant was built in Bhopal, India for the manufacturing of Sevin, a pesticide commonly used throughout Asia. This site was chosen specifically because of its central location, though it was zoned only for light, non-hazardous industry. In the early 1980s, the demand for pesticides fell, decreasing the production of Sevin. Widespread crop failures and famine prevented farmers from having the funds to invest in pesticides. Thus, while a search for a buyer took place, the Bhopal factory continued to operate below the standards found in its sister plants. The government was reluctant to  enforce safety regulations because it believed that the additional costs might cause the plant to shut down.  

On the night of December 2, 1984, a faulty valve released one ton of water for cleaning internal pipes into a tank that held forty tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC). Pressure and heat from vigorous exothermic reaction in the tank built and the safety valve gave way, sending an explosion of MIC gas into the air. Within hours, people and animals dropped dead, with about 3,800 in close proximity to the plant dying instantly. A crisis began and there was a lack of knowledge of exactly which gas was involved and what its effects were.  Immediately after the explosion, Union Carbide Coproration (UCC), the founding company, disclaimed all responsibility for the gas leak. It instead shifted blame to Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), claiming that the plant was built and operated fully by the Indian subsidiary. The company was said to have released fabricated stories and even claimed that the plant malfunction was instead a sabotage by Sikh extremists, much to the outrage of locals. Lawsuits were filed, and the interests of those most affected by the diaster were largely ignored. The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act was enacted by the government to ensure that claims would be dealt with, and the Act placed sole responsibility for paying financial reparations on the Indian government. Had compensation in Bhopal been paid at the same rate that asbestosis victims were being awarded in US courts by defendant including UCC – which mined asbestos from 1963 to 1985 – the liability would have been greater than the $10 billion the company was worth in 1984. (2) Instead, a compensation of $500 per injured individual was awarded to 554,895 injured people and 15,310 survivors. After extensive pressure from other countries, the facility was eventually closed, but the industrial site was never cleaned up. Today, the plant continues to leak several toxic chemicals and metals into local aquifers, exposing the people living in Bhopal to the same dangerous chemicals that had exploded from the factory's tanks over twenty-five years ago.(3)

The tragedy of Bhopal serves as a warning that industrialization in developing countries requires strict environmental guidelines and that companies must adhere to these regulations to ensure that their operations are safe for the employees and local residents. It is also a reminder that economic challenges should not be an excuse for sub-par operational standards, especially when failure to maintain suitable standards exposes local populations to serious health risks. Some steps have been taken by the Indian government to offer the public some protection from harmful industrial practices. However, India's economic growth has often come at the cost of the environmental health and public safety of its population and both small and large companies continue to cause lasting damage. There is more that could still be done to mitigate the catastrophe of Bhopal and to promote safe industrialization practices in the future.(4)

The BP Oil Crisis

In April 2010, oil began gushing from an exploded pipe at British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig into the Gulf of Mexico. What seemed to be a problem that BP could fix relatively easily soon turned into one of the largest environmental disasters in history.When an explosion caused the deepwater drill to blow, workers tried to activate the blowout preventer, which is designed to seal the well quickly in the event of a burst of pressure. It did not work, and a failsafe switch also failed to employ. The oil-well blowout is thought to have leaked 4.9 million barrels of crude oil at the time of the disaster along the Gulf shoreline, host to numerous fishing communities and a vast diversity of wildlife species. BP has been criticized for not stopping the leak and cleaning up the spill before it reached land. Cleanup crews struggled to cope with the massive oil slick leaking from the well.  A cap was finally successfully placed on the well on July 15, which stopped the release of oil into the Gulf. However, for three months, the massive slick threatened the shores of Louisiana and other southern Gulf Coast states. There is an overwhelming amount of information on this recent disaster. Environmental activists argue that it is the company’s full responsibility to anticipate leakage disasters and to have appropriate measures in place to handle such situations.(5) For more detailed information about the consequences of the oil spill on the health of the environment, please review:

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(1) Broughton, E. “The Bhopal Disaster and Its Aftermath: A Review.” Environmental Health 4 (2005): 6. PMC. Accessed on 27 August 2018.

(2) Castleman B PP. Appendix: the Bhopal disaster as a case study in double standards. In: Ives J, editor. “The export of hazards: trans-national corporations and environmental control issues.” London , Routledge and Kegan Paul; 1985. pp. 213–222.

(3) Fortun K.(2009) Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, disaster, new global orders. University of Chicago Press.

(4) Broughton, E. “The Bhopal Disaster and Its Aftermath: A Review.” Environmental Health 4 (2005): 6. PMC. Accessed on 27 August 2018.

(5) Robertson, C., &Lipton, E. “BP Is Criticized Over Oil Spill, but U.S. Missed Chances to Act.” New York Times. (30 April 2010). Accessed on 27 August 2018.