“It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies…the coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing, or even if they were wearing nothing at all.”
The Gas Leak itself
The quote above comes from Champa Devi Shukla, a survivor of the Bhopal gas disaster of December 2nd 1984. The gas disaster occurred as a result of a leak at a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Set up in the 1970s, the plant ceased active production in the early 1980s. However, the deadly chemicals remained in the factory, including over 60 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC). Despite this, the six safety systems which were in place to prevent a leak of MIC were not effective. When an employee flushed a corroded pipe on the night of December 2nd, the stopcock system failed, allowing water to flood the largest tank of MIC. The uncontrolled reaction released MIC, hydrogen cyanide, mono methylamine and other chemicals, which were blown into Bhopal in the form of a deadly gas cloud.
The effects of the gas cloud were devastating. Half a million people were exposed to the gas: the equivalent of over sixteen times the amount of people in Brighton’s Amex Stadium at full capacity. Some of those exposed to the leak on the night vomited, fell into convulsions and died. Some people lost control of their bodily functions, others were crushed. Still more had their eyes and lungs painfully burned by gas. Pregnant women suffered spontaneous abortions. Survivors estimated by the number of shrouds sold in the city that about 8,000 people died within the first week, and to date 25,000 people have now died. More than 120,000 still suffer from ailments caused by the leak; a number which is more than five times the total number of students registered at Brighton University over the 2012/2013 year.
Continued health effects
Rashida Bi, who lost family members to cancers as a result of gas exposure, believes that those who survived “are the unlucky ones; the lucky ones are those who died on that night.”
The factory has still not been properly cleaned. Chemicals left in the factory’s warehouses have been forced into the groundwater by monsoons, leaving contaminated water to flow north-eastward. Those who come into contact with the contaminated water face the risks of severe illness or death. Breathlessness, persistent coughs, problems with vision, cataracts, menstrual problems, fever, aches, fatigue, anxiety, depression, cancers, TB, loss of sensation in the limbs, reproductive health problems, renal failure, and growth retardation are just a few of the health issues which have risen since the disaster. Pregnant women suffered “monstrous” births, in which their children were barely even recognisable as human. Those women who arrived at hospitals with urine samples, desperate for reassurance that their babies were healthy, were driven from the hospital by police with batons.
Clinics and how you can help
The Chingari Rehabilitation Centre works with the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, with special reference to the victims of corporate crime. The Trust does not discriminate on the basis of caste, creed or religion, and it has achieved an extraordinary amount since it was set up. The Trust holds a database of children’s special needs, and more than 300 children with disabilities caused as a result of their parent’s exposure to gas, contaminated water, or both, have been registered there since September 2010. 120 of these children are now receiving treatment in the rehabilitation centre. These children are sent with their parents for regular checkups and treatment at local hospitals, ensuring that they receive the correct documents and certificates necessary to access government schemes. The trust also explores ways to provide psychological support and counselling for the children. Speech therapy, teaching sign language, and reading and writing in Braille are also provided. The Sambhavna Trust Clinic is the second clinic in Bhopal working to help the victims of the disaster. The trust is run by doctors, scientists, writers and social workers, and over half of the 57 staff members are survivors themselves. It offers free medical care through allopathy, ayurveda, yoga and western medicine.
The Bhopal Medical Appeal is a Brighton-based charity, working with the Bhopal survivors, to provide grants to survivor-led initiatives such as the clinics detailed above. As a result, the Bhopal Medical Appeal is currently giving away free places in the Brighton Marathon 2014. Places are running out fast, so e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up now while they still have some left!
Written by Charlotte Lee (Sussex Medical Student)