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

An environmental disaster is caused by human activity, not to be confused with a natural disaster, an example of which would be an earthquake or tornado. Environmental disasters affect agriculture, biodiversity, the economy and human health. They have historically caused excessive pollution and depletion of natural resources.(1)  This module discusses a few of the major environmental disasters that have had an enormous impact on human health.

The Bhopal Disaster(2)

As described in the article “The Bhopal Disaster and it’s Aftermaths: A Review”, more than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked on December 3, 1984 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 feared implementing safety regulations because of the possibility of the plant shutting down due to economic constraints.

On the night of December 2, 1984, a faulty valve allowed one ton of water for cleaning internal pipes to mix with forty tons of 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 people dying instantly close to the plant. 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  Immediately after the explosion, UCC, the founding company, rescinded all responsibility for the gas leak. It instead shifted blame to 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.(3) Instead, a paltry compensation of $500 per injured individual was awarded to 554,895 injured people and 15,310 survivors. According to Dow Public Relations Head Kathy Hunt, US$500 was deemed "plenty good for an Indian." It was reported that UCC attempted to manipulate and withhold scientific data from victims. 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.(4),(5)

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 the lives of many are at stake. 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 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 throughout the world. There is still plenty to be done to attempt to mitigate the catastrophe of Bhopal and to ensure safe industrialization practices in the future. (6)

The Controversy of Chevron Corporation

Chevron Corporation, the American multinational energy company, has been at the center of controversy in a number of developing countries. Chevron operated the development of the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador from 1965-1993, which quickly became a site of enormous environmental damage. A $27 billion legal case was brought against Chevron following the drilling of the Lago Agrio oil field. The plaintiffs of the lawsuit were 30,000 Ecuadorians living in the Amazonian rainforest which they claim has been polluted by the oil industry.(7)

Aside from major environmental concerns in Ecuador, Chevron has been criticized for environmentally unsound operations in Angola, sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest oil producer. Angola exports more oil to the United States than Kuwait. However, as reported by the British Broadcasting Channel, Angola demanded $2 million as compensation for oil spills allegedly caused by Chevron in 2002. The Ministry of Environment and Fisheries released a formal statement specifying that a spill in June 2002 had polluted beaches and forced fishermen to stop work. An investigation found that the spills were the result of leaks from badly maintained crude transport pipes. Chevron's operations in Angola, and around the world, have been repeatedly blamed for oil spills by local press and environmental activists.(8)

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. According to Nature, the oil-well blowout 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 highly criticized for not stopping the leak and cleaning up the spill before it reached land. 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.(9) Cleanup crews struggled to cope with the massive oil slick leaking from the well. When an explosion caused the deepwater drill to blow, workers tried to activate the blowout preventer, or B.O.P., 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. 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. For more detailed information about the consequences of the oil spill on the health of the environment, please review:

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(1) Wikipedia contributors. "Environmental disaster." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 25 Jun. 2010.

(2) Broughton, E. “The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review.” 10 May 2005. Environ Health. 4:6.  Accessed 30 July 2010.

(3) 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.

(4) Fortun K. Advocacy after Bhopal. Chicago , University of Chicago Press; 2001. p. 259.

(5) 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.

(6) Broughton, E. “The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review.” 10 May 2005. Environ Health. 4:6.  Accessed 30 July 2010.

(7) Pelley, C. “Amazon Crude.” CBS. (3 May 2009). Accessed 30 July 2010.

(8) “Angola fines Chevron for pollution.” BBC. (1 July 2002). Accessed 30 July 2010.

(9) Robertson, C. and Lipton, E. “BP Is Criticized Over Oil Spill, but U.S. Missed Chances to Act.” (30 April 2010). Accessed 30 July 2010.