What can one do if the food, the soil, the water and one's own body are contaminated with toxic chemicals? How does one live healthily and support a livelihood? How can one survive the deep violation of human rights, embodied by the seeping poison unleashed by a powerful corporate which was never brought to book for its crimes?
These are questions raised in a recently released report by a Fact Finding Mission (FFM) on Bhopal, the site of the world's worst industrial disaster. During the night of December 2, 1984, about 40 tones of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from the Union Carbide India Limited's (UCIL) pesticide factory in Bhopal in central India, leaked into the surrounding environment.
The report, 'Surviving Bhopal: Toxic Present, Toxic Future', which focuses on human and environmental chemical contamination, makes it clear that the toxic legacy of the Bhopal gas leak continues till date, especially in the heavily-populated areas around the plant. The study was conducted by environmental toxicologist Dr Amit Nair and coordinated by Delhi-based environmental non-government organization (NGO) Srishti. It highlights the fact that "not only the soil, but also the groundwater, vegetables and even breast milk is contaminated to various degrees by heavy metals like nickel, chromium, mercury and lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like dichlorobenzene and halo-organics like dichloromethane and chloroform."
On that fateful night in 1984, more than 2,000 died immediately and over 200,000 of the city's total population of 700,000 were directly affected. What followed was a devastating impact of the chemicals on the eyes, lungs and gastro-intestinal systems. Gynecological and obstetric complications soon became apparent, as did immunological changes, neurological disorders, accelerated rates of cancer and emotional and mental stress. Unfortunately, the devastating impact continues till date.
Tardy compensation, inadequate and inappropriate medical treatment and absence of economic rehabilitation to the debilitated survivors characterized the post-gas leak scenario in Bhopal. In 1989, the Indian Government arrogated to itself the sole power to represent all the victims under the Bhopal Gas Leak Act and settled for a sum of US $470 million -- nearly one-seventh of the original claim of US $3 billion.
This infamous settlement, the disregard for health and the environment by Union Carbide are lessons in lack of corporate accountability and gross injustice on those affected by the disaster.
And even as Union Carbide merged with Dow Chemical in 2001 to form the largest chemical corporation in the world, the Bhopal Fact Finding Mission, comprising experts from different fields set out to investigate the current state of the people and environment at the Bhopal disaster site. The Mission focused on several aspects ranging from medical and mental health to economic, legal and social aspects.
The study reveals that the continued contamination of the groundwater, soil and breast milk present a serious health threat not only to those currently exposed but also to future generations.
According to experts, the evidence suggests that the toxics have not only moved across various mediums, but tropic transfer of these chemicals, essentially through the food chain, causes these toxics to become part of the body burden. "The wide spectrum of toxic chemicals detected in the human body itself is a dangerous signal," says Nair.
These chemicals can alter the normal physiological processes in the human body and have a long-term impact on the reproductive, immune and nervous system. Infants and children are most affected to these toxins since infants are most sensitive to these toxic chemicals. Other effects of chemical pollutants include carcinogenicity, mutagenicity and chromosomal aberrations. Of significance here is 'synergism', whereby even minute quantities of two or more of these toxic chemicals within the human body can cause immense harm.
Chlorinated hydrocarbons, sometimes called 'environmental hormones', are also endocrine disrupters. That is, they interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system -- cells and glands in the body that secrete hormones, the chemical messengers that regulate bodily processes.
These toxic chemicals remain intact (which means they are not bio-degradable) and have a disastrous tendency to accumulate in fatty tissue. Environmental estrogens may increase breast cancer risk. They can also cause other reproductive disorders like prolonged menstruation, sterility, low sperm count and repeated miscarriages.
Of serious concern is the fact that they can be passed on to the next generation through breast milk. Human breast milk samples, taken from women in the area and studied by the FFM, showed maximum concentrations of VOCs and a higher concentration of pesticide in breast milk, showing that these carcinogenic toxics are bio-concentrated in breast milk. "This poses a serious concern to infants, as it is the easiest and shortest route of exposure of these potentially carcinogenic chemicals," says the report.
According to current toxicological knowledge, there is no acceptable level for these toxic compounds. In children, even low dosage toxicity can lead to endocrine disruption and hormonal malfunctions, effects of which may only emerge at puberty. In addition to the amount of exposure, the timing seems to be crucial. Exposure during fetal development or during early infancy can have serious implications for future development.
"The worst part of the disaster is probably yet to come," says Nair, speaking about the teratogenic effects. These toxic chemicals can cause mutations and chromosomal aberrations, birth defects in babies born to the exposed population indicating a strong likelihood of congenital malformations in the generations to come.
One fall-out of this has been that people are reluctant to marry young people who were exposed to the gas, especially since males who were exposed and are married presently do not have offspring or have deformed offspring. Many women fear to marry men who were exposed to the gas disaster because of a fear of sterility, miscarriages or malformed children.
While the tragedy continues, with affected people forced to consume contaminated water and food, it is apparent that the grim lessons of Bhopal are yet to be learnt. "While the post-Bhopal scenario realigned thinking on the impacts of chemicals on human health and environment, this has yet to be translated into practice," says the report.
The seemingly wide-ranging Environment Protection Act enacted in 1996 and other laws which it spawned, follow the limited technical path of regulation and end-of-pipe solutions, without examining the processes which lead to the generation of hazardous wastes.
The post-Bhopal era also saw worldwide regulation on chemicals and toxicity and a demand by communities to the right to information and to be participants in the process of industry-siting. Yet, as Tomas Mac Sheoin's report on the Union Carbide Corporation notes, "It is one of the bitter ironies of Bhopal that its major reformist effects were felt in Union Carbide's home country." Inspired by the disaster and the public response to it, the US increased its regulatory activities. One major step forward came through the setting up of the Toxic Releases Inventory and other freedom of information measures that greatly increased public access to information on toxic chemical releases.
In India, however, community struggles have had little success in gaining the 'right to know' whereby people can identify any contaminated sites in their areas. But why go so far? Because, as Nair points out, many people even in Bhopal are not aware of the hazardous impact of contaminated ground water. Others, though aware of the contamination, continue to consume it because the government has not provided any alternative sources of potable water.