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Snapshots in History: December 2-3: Remembering the 1984 Bhopal Chemical Plant Disaster

December 3, 2013 | John P. | Comments (0)


(Dominique La Pierre on Dow Chemicals 1/12/09)


On December 2-3 and beyond, take a moment to remember the leakage of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other ingredients at the Union Carbide Plant Disaster in Bhopal, India on the evening/early morning of December 2-3, 1984. The Bhopal disaster or gas tragedy in Madhya Pradesh state resulted in some 3,787 officially confirmed deaths by the state government (although many more died in the tens of thousands) with some other half-a-million-plus people injured to varying degrees (temporarily and permanently) from the incident. The Union Carbide India Limited plant was established in Bhopal in 1969 to produce carbaryl, a pesticide known commercially as Sevin. The process used at Bhopal involved the treatment of methyl isocyanate (See 3 in the diagram below) with 1-naphthol (See 4 in the diagram below).


(Credit: Preparation of carbaryl as in Bhopal.png - English: Synthesis of carbaryl, which uses methyl isocyanate. Adapted from Thomas A. Unger (1996), Particle synthesis handbook, William Andrew, pp. 67-68. ISBN: 0815514018. Source URL: )


(An alternative treatment process involves the conversion of 1-naphthol to chloroformate which is then treated with methylamine to give the desired result. The same reagents are used but the preparation of methyl isocyanate is avoided. Click here to view the alternative synthesis of carbaryl.)

Factors leading to the events of December 2-3, 1984 included the filling of large storage tanks with methyl isocyanate (MIC) beyond recommended levels; poor maintenance at the plant; the malfunction of several safety systems and the turning off of other safety systems to save money (including the MIC tank refrigeration system - its operation might have lessened the impact of the disaster); proximity to densely populated slum dwellings; deficiencies in health care and other services; a dearth of skilled operators in the plant; and the lack of an emergency preparedness plan. Seven (7) former employees were convicted in June 2010 of death by negligence and sentenced to two (2) years in jail in addition to a fine; one other former employee was also convicted but died before the court passed sentence.

Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:


The age of catastrophe disaster and humanity in modern times

The age of catastrophe: disaster and humanity in modern times / John David Ebert, 2012. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 363.3409 EBE

Man-made disasters are on the rise and the efforts to keep nature and civilization separated are not likely given their interconnectedness. It is more challenging to distinguish natural disasters from man-made ones. Ebert analyzed a number of post-World War 2 or “neomodern”disasters such as Bhopal (1984) and Chernobyl (1986) as well as several disasters of planetary scale, including Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans (2005) and the Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown (2011).

(Also reviewed in: Snapshots in History: April 26: Remembering the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster)


This borrowed earth lessons from the fifteen worst environmental disasters around the world

This borrowed earth: lessons from the fifteen worst environmental disasters around the world / Robert Emmet Hernan, 2009. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 363.7 HER

Humankind has damaged the environment through the desire for profit and a stubborn ignorance of the potential consequences. Some of the major environmental disasters covered are: Bhopal (1984), Chernobyl (1986), Exxon Valdez (1989), Love Canal (late 1970s), Minamata (1950s-1960s), and Three Mile Island (1979). This book introduces the reader to individuals involved in protecting their local communities and environments.


  Five minutes past midnight in Bhopal

Five past midnight in Bhopal / Dominique LaPierre and Javier Moro, 2002. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 363.179 LAP

The authors provide a great deal of background information leading up to the Bhopal gas tragedy. The technical aspects of the disaster are balanced with the human side of the story with a focus on a peasant family forced to leave their farmland and move to the Bhopal region where fate awaited their arrival.

Also available in French as: Il était minuit cinq à Bhopal: récit .  

Also available in Hindi as: Bhopāla bāraha bajakara pañca minaṭa


Consider several titles that were written closer to when the Bhopal disaster occurred:

Bhopal: anatomy of a crisis / Paul Shrivastava, 1987. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 363.179 SHR

The author, a management academic who hails from Bhopal, analyzes industrial crises (with specific regard to Bhopal) for characteristics relating to victims and their communities, governments, and corporations. Governments in developing countries are found to offer inadequate infrastructure to support industrialization while businesses are said to have a narrow focus, and are unprepared and unresponsive where crises are concerned.


The Bhopal tragedy: what really happened and what it means for American workers and communities at risk / Ward Morehouse and M. Arun Subramaniam, 1986. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 363.179 MOR

This book, whose intended audience was the Citizens Commission on Bhopal, was the first monograph-length account of the Bhopal disaster. The authors address the question of responsibility for the chemical plant leak and analyze the health and environmental impacts of the chemical gas discharge. The authors calculate $4.1 billion (in 1985 American dollars) in compensation for solely economic losses as providing an overview of pending claims litigation at the time.


A killing wind: inside union carbide and the Bhopal catastrophe / Dan Kurzman, 1987. Book. Adult Non-Fiction. 363.179 K / 363.179 KUR

Kurzman tells the story of what happened at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India from the viewpoints of various individuals including the victims seeking compensation, local politicians, and company representatives. The impacts of local corruption and bureaucratic barriers are also discussed.


Would you rather watch and listen? Consider the following documentaries for viewing from Toronto Public Library collections:

One night in Bhopal [DVD] / McNabb Connolly, 2004. DVD. Adult Non-Fiction. Documentary. 363.1791 ONE

This documentary reports on the escape of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that killed thousands of people and injured hundreds of thousands more. The film emphasizes cost-cutting measures that weakened operational safety at the chemical plant.


Scared sacred [DVD] / Velcrow Ripper (filmmaker) et. al.; National Film Board of Canada, 2006. DVD. Adult Non-Fiction. Documentary. English/French with subtitles. 303.62509 SCA

This documentary records filmmaker Velcrow Ripper’s five-year journey of documenting the “ground zeros” of various disasters and humanity’s capabilities of turning despair and disaster into possibility through stories of survival, resilience, and hope. Velcrow Ripper visits Bhopal, India, the Cambodian minefields, Bosnia, Hiroshima, Afghanistan, New York City after 9/11, as well as Israel and Palestine.



What about a novel that ties into the Bhopal Disaster? Do you prefer to read fiction over non-fiction? If that is the case, then consider the following title for loan from Toronto Public Library collections:


  Animal's people

Animal’s people / Indra Sinha, 2007. Book. Adult Fiction. FICTION SIN

The author, a frequent contributor to, offers the reader a mixture of seriousness and satire. The reader is introduced to the main character, Animal, a 19-year old, disabled teenager with a badly deformed spine. Consequently, he must walk on his hands and feet to get around. As an infant, Animal was injured and orphaned as a result of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Animal is taunted as a result of his disability but is befriended by Nisha (with whom he falls in unrequited love) who loves Zafar, the leader of a protest group demanding compensation from the chemical company. An American opens a free clinic to which Animal goes but Zafar is suspicious and urges a boycott of the clinic as he believes it to be allied with the chemical company.


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