It’s not wrong to say it’s been 31 years since the worst industrial catastrophe in history, when more than 80,000 pounds of toxic gas leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India.
But it’s not right, either.
For more than half a million of people, the Bhopal gas disaster hasn’t ended, according to survivor-activist Sanjay Verma who lost 5 siblings and both parents on the night of Dec. 2, 1984. (Only 6 months old at the time, he doesn’t recall his 9-year old sister wrapping him in a blanket and running away with him and his 13-year-old brother from the poisonous clouds.)
During an Amnesty International-sponsored trip to represent the people of Bhopal in Washington DC, Verma last week visited the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for a panel discussion and screening of the recently released film, “Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain.”
Starring Martin Sheen, the movie was inspired by what Verma calls “the first disaster”—that being the Union Carbide pesticide plant’s release of cyanide that killed between 7,000 and 10,000 people within the first 72 hours.
A separate “second disaster,” he says, is still happening. Still making people sick. Still killing people.
The abandoned factory site—Union Carbide has since merged with the Dow Chemical Company—has never been cleaned up. The rate of birth defects in Bhopal is 10 times higher than in all the rest of India, but Bhopal is hardly alone in its suffering. Densely populated neighboring communities also are affected by contaminated ground water, soil and air. Much of the material that was produced onsite by Union Carbide—in addition to a highly corrosive and volatile chemical—was factory waste that got dumped into the ground and leaky holding ponds. Dozens of monsoons in past decades have aided in the runoff and percolation of contaminants.
In addition to convincing policy makers and activists that Dow Chemical needs to be held accountable, Verma hopes to draw the attention of public health researchers to the critical need for a systematic epidemiological study of the long-term health impacts of a disaster that hasn’t ended.