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Bhopal gas tragedy: A careless UCIL, but healthcare system during Covid still overburdened

Darpan News Desk IANS, 01 Dec, 2021 12:18 PM
  • Bhopal gas tragedy: A careless UCIL, but healthcare system during Covid still overburdened

Bhopal, Dec 1 (IANS) Leaked toxic Methyl IsoCyanate (MIC) gas from the Union Carbide of India Ltd (UCIL) factory started affecting the residents of Madhya Pradesh capital city Bhopal, especially those residing in the southeast direction from the factory, around 2 a.m. on the intervening night of December 2 and 3 in 1984. However, the leak was sensed hours before with technical failure in the factory during the process of controlling it, suggests a report prepared by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and released in 2010.

What caused the world's worst industrial disaster?

The UCIL, a pesticide plant, was established in JP Nagar area, now known as old Bhopal city to produce the pesticide 'Sevin' (brand name of US based company UCC) using Methyl IsoCyanate gas in 1969. The factory had housed three underground liquid MIC storage tanks - E610, E611 and E619. The liquid MIC production was in progress and being used to fill these tanks.

Stainless steel tanks were pressurised with inert nitrogen gas, a process to allow MIC to be pumped out of each tank as needed, and also kept impurities and moisture out of the tanks. During the failure, tank E610 was containing around 42 tonnes of liquid MIC. An attempt to re-establish pressure in tank E610 on December 1 failed, so liquid MIC could not be pumped out of it.

During the late evening on December 2, water was believed to have entered a side pipe and into Tank E610 which started a runaway exothermic reaction, which was accelerated by contaminants, high ambient temperatures and various other factors such as the presence of iron from corroding non-stainless steel pipelines. Workers in the factory's MIC area started feeling the effects of minor exposure to the gas around 11.30 p.m. on December 2.

The supervisor on duty at the time was informed immediately and it was decided that the problem will be discussed during a tea break after 12 a.m. In the meantime, workers were instructed to continue looking for leaks. After five minutes (at 12.40 a.m.), tank E610 reached a critical state at an alarming speed.

Subsequently, a concrete slab above tank E610 cracked as the emergency relief valve burst open, and pressure in the tank continued to increase. It could have been controlled using two technical processes -- either to cool the tank or to pass stored liquid MIC gas to the flare tower to burn it. "The refrigeration system established to cool the tanks was removed around six months before the disaster took place. The pipe of the flare tower meant to burn MIC gas was improperly sized to reduce a leak," reports analysed by IANS suggested.

"After the failure of hours of efforts to fix the technical problem, the factory's siren was sounded to alert the people around 2.30 a.m. and employees and workers left towards the north direction from the factory," said David, (goes by a single name) who claimed that his father was one of the workers in the factory during the disaster.

By 1.30 a.m. about 30 tonnes of MIC had leaked from the tank into the atmosphere and in the next two hours it reached the nearby residential colonies and the people in deep sleep started inhaling the toxic gas. People started falling unconscious and the world's worst chemical disaster began in Bhopal, early on December 3.

"People started dying within hours. By 7 a.m. on December 3, 70 people had died which increased to 260 by 9 a.m. and thereafter the figure continued to rise," the ICMR report stated.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the post gas disaster situation have some similar problems for the doctors in Bhopal:

The situation for medical experts in Bhopal during the gas disaster in 1984 seems similar to the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in India by early 2020. The healthcare system was overburdened, breathless people were lying on the roads, hospitals were filled with bodies. A similar situation was witnessed in many parts of India during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021.

Dr V M Kathoch, the then secretary to the Government of India and the Director of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), wrote on a 'Preface' of 142 pages reports prepared by a team of medical experts, including some from Bhopal, which read, "Helpless doctors were neither aware about the nature of 'Killer Gas', which had escaped into the air from the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) factory, nor did they have any idea about antibodies to be administered. Yet they did whatever they could by way of symptomatic treatment, to make the last minutes of the victims on earth more tolerable."

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