Environmental/Public Health Risks: The Bhopal Assessment Answer

Answer:

Introduction

Human beings are in constant interaction with their environment. As such, these interactions have an impact on the quality of life that they get to live healthy, and the health disparities. The relation of the environment to health is best defined by the World Health Organization as “all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person and all the related behaviors” (WHO, 2006). Therefore, environmental health comprises prevention or control of disease, disability, and injury related to the interaction between humans and their environment.   

One of the twenty-first-century key environmental health challenges is industrialization. It is a theme of major focus in many other disciplines of public policy; however, it’s the health discipline that particularly shows the shared outcome of a world that’s globalizing, both the associated hazards and its potentials. While industrialization and the associated development provide opportunities for employment, socio-economic and education development, a number of environmental problems and health hazards also occur (Philp, 2015).

Castleman (2013) reports that the impact of health determinants on people is sophisticated and the control of these determinants is often outside the capacity and responsibility of the health sector. For an effective action that can help solve urban related urban health problems, it is paramount that the efforts of various other sectors are incorporated like the non-governmental organizations, other government units, private companies, and the communities as well.

As seen in the case of the Bhopal tragedy and those of other cities it is evident that governments of rapidly developing cities typically lack adequate revenues for the provision of public services. The rapid growth of the industry sector further strains the capacity of these governments to provide efficient health and safety procedures as necessary. More, it has been noted that the multinational corporations have a more powerful force than city governments in the provision of occupational health and safety and are more influential than even the local communities in mitigating this problem ("BBC News - Bhopal's health effects probed", 2009). This paper, therefore, analyses the Bhopal tragedy and gives a detailed report on the findings and concludes with a recommendation for future developments towards cautioning the environment and public health against similar incidences. Studies on human health are reviewed and the effects that resulted from the exposure to methyl isocyanate gas that eventually leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited, Bhopal, in 1984. The studies were conducted both in the early and the late recovery periods (Mishra et al., 2009).


Background of the Bhopal Tragedy

In the 1970s, the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) built a plant in Bhopal to manufacture Sevin, a commonly used pesticide across Asia. The government of India insisted that as part of the deal a significant percentage of the investment be from local shareholders (Shrivastav, 2011). As such, India’s government had a twenty-two percent stake in the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a subsidiary of the firm. Bhopal was chosen because of its strategic location and the access to transportation and labor. The location site had been zoned for light commercial and industrial investment and not for hazardous activities. Initially, the company was approved for the sole formulation of pesticides from component pesticides in small quantities like the methyl isocyanate (MIC) from the mother company. Nonetheless, with the pressure to compete effectively, UCIL was forced to employ a “backward integration”- manufacturing raw materials and intermediate formulation products within the local facility. This process was inherently more complex and hazardous (Mishra et al., 2009).

In the 1980s the demand for pesticides declined in the subcontinent due to widespread crop failure and famine. Consequently, the Bhopal plant was producing nearly one-quarter of its production capacity (Dhara and Dhara, 2002). Therefore, local managers were advised to prepare the facility for closure and subsequent sale due to decreased profitability. Unfortunately, no ready buyer was found and the company decided to dismantle several of its production units for shipment to another developing country. At the same time, the company continued to make production with safety standards way below those of the sister branch in West Virginia, USA. On the other hand, the local government was in fear of placing heavy safety and industrial pollution control burdens on the struggling large employer for economic reasons (Dhara, 1994). 

On the second of December 1984 at around 1100 hours, while most of the Bhopal residents slept, one of the plant operators discovered a leaking MIC gas as well as a rising pressure in a storage tank. Three weeks prior to this event, the vent gas scrubber which is supposed to neutralize toxic discharges from the MIC system had been turned off. Unfortunately, a faulty valve had allowed a ton of water used for pipe cleaning to mix with forty tons of MIC (Cullinan, Acquilla, and Dhara 1996; Eckerman, 2005). More, a refrigeration unit installed for safety purposes to cool the MIC tank had been transferred for use in another unit within the plant. This allowed the heat and pressure from the exothermic reaction inside the tank to continuously build up. Additionally, for three months, the gas flare system had been inactive. It was not until the next morning at around 0100 hours when a thunderous rumbling signaled a safety valve giving way sending a massive cloud of MIC gas into Bhopal’s morning air. Several hours later, the streets were filled with human corpses as well as livestock and birds’ carcasses. Nearly 3800 humans were found dead, mostly from the slum adjacent to the plant. Soon, local hospitals capacities were overwhelmed with patients. Even more challenging was the fact that physicians were not immediately aware of the exact gas that was causing the damage. This made Bhopal a synonymous name to industrial catastrophe marking the tragedy as one of the worst chemical disasters even experienced in the history of mankind (Cullinan, Acquilla, and Dhara, 1997)

A few days later nearly 10,000 cases were reported and nearly 20,000 premature deaths in the next two decades. The government of India reported that more than 500, 000 citizens had been exposed to the harmful gas. Epidemiology studies that followed indicated a marked increase in the morbidity and mortality rates in the affected population (University of Minnesota, 2016). However, the data in these studies may have been an underrepresentation of the true picture since the number of people who migrated from the area was not accounted for.

Evaluation of the Aftermath

The events that followed the Bhopal gas leak led to a significant increase in the development of activism and environmental awareness in India. These led to the creation of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) following the passing of the Environment Protection Act in 1986. This Act gave MoEF the overall responsibility to administer and enforce environmental policies and laws. MoEF established integrated environmental strategies into all the industrial development plans in India. Nonetheless, the government’s efforts to protect public health, wildlife, and the environment through policies have taken precedence following developments in the country’s economy for the last three decades since the occurrence of the tragedy.

Evidently, the nature of the chemical industry could have undergone huge changes following the Bhopal disaster with a possible re-examination of the necessity for the production of such harmful products. Still, agricultural practices have not changed and the use of harmful pesticide is a norm even after the lesson of acute and chronic effects of exposure to the pesticide in Bhopal. It is estimated that nearly three million individuals suffer the consequences of pesticide poisoning with a large percentage coming from the agriculturally developing countries (Dhara et al., 2002). More, this contaminations cause nearly 20,000 in India every year (Dhara et al., 2002). an example is the case of the state of Kerala which recorded significant morbidity and mortality due to continued use of a hazardous pesticide, Endosulfan, years later after the gas leak in Bhopal (Singh and Bhadoria, 2013).

Since the tragedy, UCC has been shrinking and is now owned by the Dow Chemical Company after it was restructured and divested. This move saved the company from a hostile takeover giving the top executive and the shareholders bountiful profits while placing the assets of UCC safely away from the legal reach of the victims. The company still holds that the disaster resulted from deliberate sabotage (University of Minnesota, 2016).

Adding insult to injury, the company discontinued its operations in Bhopal but failed to do a thorough clean-up of what remained at the industrial site. Consequently, several toxic elements continue to leak from the plant and end up in local aquifers (see appendix A, Page ) (Dhara and Acquilla, 2013). As a result, dangerously contaminated water has been added to the legacy of UCC in Bhopal.

Public Health Implication

The UCC-Bhopal tragedy also referred to as the Bhopal disaster of 1984 is one of the most historic industrial disasters to have ever hit mankind. A leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and other gasses exposed hundreds of thousands of Bhopal residents to the hazardous effects of the plant (Dhara and Kriebel, 1993). In 2006, an official government declaration stated that the leak had caused nearly 558,000 injuries, 38,500 partial, and 3,900 permanent and severe disabling injuries (Dhara, 2013). Mass cremation and funerals were held   as well as body disposal in River Narmada. Hospitals and temporary dispensaries treated approximately 170,000 patients. More than 2,000 livestock were collected and buried. The main composition of the gas cloud had materials that were denser than the surrounding air and therefore stay close to the surface, spreading outward to nearby communities (Varma and Mulay, 2015). Immediate effects of the exposure were vomiting, coughing, severe eye irritation, and a difficulty in breathing. Shorter people, including children, were most affected as they inhaled concentration of the fumes. This section reviews the health effects of the gas exposure from published studies and gives details on some of the epidemiological and clinical issues being debated.

Impact of the Disaster

The direct results of the actual disaster were massive damages to the Bhopal population with regard to loss of life and property. These were just but the ‘initial disaster’. The wave of the effects of the initial triggered a chain of destructive events relating to the initial disaster through the cause-and-effect leading to indirect damages to the remote people. This can be referred to as the ‘subsequent disaster’.

Physical Health Effects

 As discussed, the dense material in the gas cloud stayed close to the ground and rapidly spread outward through the surrounding community. The initial effects were vomiting, coughing, severe eye irritation and difficulty in breathing. According to  Senthilkumar, Sah, and Ganesh (2016), thousands of those affected by the tragedy are still suffering from extensive lung damage and they can no longer engage in physical activities as walking a few steps sends them gasping for air.

BBC (2009) reports that affected women show abnormal gynecological problems and still giving birth to children with abnormalities. Similarly, cases of abortion and premature birth are high amongst this population. Acute symptoms in this group include inflammation of the eyes and the respiratory tract, forced breathing, vomiting, and abdominal pains.

Additionally, a study by Samarth, Gandhi, and Maudar (2013) indicates that autopsies showed that there were also marked changes in the kidneys, and the liver. The rate of neonatal mortality increased by approximately 200 percent while that of stillbirth increased by up to 300%.

Psychological Health Effects  

Senthilkumar et al. (2016) assert that health problems have severe psychological repercussions. These health problems include endocrinal and gynecological problems, as well as high levels of reproductive difficulty and abnormal menstruation coupled with high incidences of miscarriages. Children born to women affected by the gas and the infected water tend to suffer from a wide array of psychological disorders including congenital deformities, physical and mental disabilities.  More specifically, women in the more religiously conservative and deprived communities suffer from chronic illnesses and have reproductive difficulty which renders them undesirable to marriage. This forces them to bear the significant social stigma. Furthermore, the condition experienced by these women being unable to conceive and deliver healthy children sentences them to live their lives without ever getting married meaning that one may live a life without ever attaining economic security.

Environmental Effects

As of today, chemicals littered at the site of the plant continue to leak polluting the groundwater. These contaminations at the site and the surrounding areas were not as a direct result of the gas leakage (Mehta et al., 1990). Dhara and Kriebel (1993) further reported that the local government had made a declaration in 1991 confirming that over 100 wells were not fit for drinking. More, a UCC laboratory test in 1989 showed that water and soil samples collected from adjacent areas to the factory were highly toxic to fish. More than twenty areas within the facility were, marked as higher polluted from this experiment. By 1994, it was found that chemicals had seriously contaminated 21 percent of the premises.

Studies on groundwater, soils, vegetables and wells from communities around the factory revealed a range of heavy contaminations from chemical compounds and toxic metals. According to the reports, the substances found include mercury, alpha-naphthol, naphthol naphthalene, lead, chromium, copper, organochlorines, hexachloroethane, nickel, Hexachlorobutadiene halo-organics, volatile organic compound, and pesticide HCH (BHC). At the same time, many of these compounds were found in breast milk.

Conclusion

A synergy of the very worst Indian and American cultures was the cause of the Bhopal gas leak tragedy. Health and safety procedures were below standard (Samarth et al., 2013). Neither the company’s management nor the government seemed concerned with taking precautionary measures. The fact is, no one was prepared for the adverse effects that were evident following the leakage; not the company, the government or even the locals. There was no prompt action from any of these stakeholders.  

India’s legal system was a disgrace to its people, failing miserably at such a crucial moment. The action was therefore taken to improve the system for the betterment of the nation and the people’s safety. International treaties were signed to give justice to people suffering from similar tragedies (Dhara, 2013). Multinational corporations operating within India must agree to comply with the conditions of doing business one being that they will be under jurisdictions of the Indian civil and criminal courts. It is mandatory that they take responsibility for their inactions in subsidiaries within the host country and not disown them I the face of tragedy.

Union Carbide Corporation’s top management attempts to shift the blame of the gas leak to the managers in the Indian subsidiary must be seen as an act of cowardice. More, the Madhya Pradesh government was equally accountable. It was the state government’s administrative duty to play its role in regulation and supervision.

Recommendations

Events of the Bhopal incident revealed to the world that industrial evolution without concurrent evolution in environment health and safety can be catastrophic. The tragedy illustrated the link between dynamics of global markets and local environmental and health disasters. The Sevin plant was established in Madhya Pradesh, not for the purpose of avoiding America's environmental regulation but to exploit the growing and seemingly large pesticide market in India and her neighbors (Dhara, 1994). However, the approach used to execute the project suggested that multinational corporations applied double standards in their operations in developing countries. If operating regulations were internationalized for hazardous industries, then the case of Bhopal might have been different.  With significant international safety measures and standards, even without enforcement, industries could have norms to measure the performance of companies that engage in hazardous activities like pesticide product, and other toxic materials. Therefore, the Indian government and international organizations should focus on applicable measures for corporate responsibility and the prevention of accidents in advanced and developing economies across the world. More specifically, prevention approaches should focus on the reduction of risk on and legislation of safety in the surrounding environment (See appendix II, page ).

It is clear that local governments can no longer allow industrial plants to be located within urban locations, despite the evolution in land use over time. Government and industry should bring proper capital support to locals so as to provide necessary public facilities like  hospitals and schools in order to minimize mortality, morbidity, and loss of property in case fatal industrial accidents (“Environmental health”, 2016).

In 1984, Bhopal had limited public infrastructure. Basically, tap water was scarce and was only available for a few hours and the quality was not healthy at all. The communities lacked a functional sewage system and therefore, residents disposed of their untreated waste in nearby water sources; including drinking water source. Bhopal four main hospitals but they lacked sufficient beds and physicians. The city also lacked a response system for mass casualty emergencies. It is, therefore, important that public health facilities are accounted for when industries considered the hazardous site a manufacturing plant. The management of future industrial development needs to formulate appropriate approaches for the prevention of disasters. Communities lacking expertise and infrastructure to adequately respond to industrial accidents should not have hazardous industries located near them.

ISO 31000 (2009) provides a risk management benchmark. It states that a “risks affecting organizations can have consequences in terms of economic performance and professional reputation, as well as environmental, safety and societal outcomes,” (ISO.org). Thus, effective risk management helps organizations to record efficient performance in an environment filled with uncertainties. With uncertainties comes the need to boost the level of confidence. Initiating a business risk management plan requires the identification of associated risks and increasing the level of confidence in managing those risks. More, these risks are typically specific to a business or industry and can be traditional or emerging. These risks may even be preventable suggesting that compliance rules can be created. They can also be challenging as external or strategic risks. Nonetheless, participating parties can benefit from an integrated risk management approach; managing cross-functional assessment teams within an organization; and, effectively communicating risks and treatment plans to all organizational levels.

References

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Castleman, B. I. (2013). The migration of industrial hazards. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.

Cullinan, P., Acquilla, S. D., & Dhara, V. R. (1996). Long-term morbidity in survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak. National Medical Journal of India, 9, 5-9.

Cullinan, P., Acquilla, S., & Dhara, V. R. (1997). Respiratory morbidity 10 years after the Union Carbide gas leak at Bhopal: a cross-sectional survey. BMJ, 314(7077), 338.

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