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Project July 10, 2018

The Lasting Legacy of the Bhopal Gas Leak

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Media file: bhopal-union_carbide_2.jpg
Image by Apoorva Mandavilli.

Just before midnight on December 2, 1984, a colorless gas called methyl isocyanate began silently leaking from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India. The massive quantities of gas that escaped killed thousands of people and severely disabled half a million more.

More than 30 years later, hundreds of tons of waste on the 11-acre site have yet to be cleaned up. The mix of poisonous chemicals has seeped into the groundwater, with levels several thousand fold above what's deemed safe. Those who survived that night still carry forward a legacy of birth defects, cancer, and mental retardation.

This information is based on a handful of studies, but the exact long-term health or environmental impact is unknown. In fact, for the world's most lethal industrial accident, the facts are absurdly foggy. Nearly everything known about the incident is rooted in conjecture: The death toll, for example, ranges from just under 4,000 according to the Indian government, to more than 10,000 according to independent investigations.

Why the accident happened is slightly clearer—mainly a series of preventable errors and poor safety conditions, according to investigations by the New York Times and others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Union Carbide, the company that owned the chemical plant—and now owned by Dow—contends that the leak was the result of sabotage.

This project is an attempt to chronicle the long-term impact of the Bhopal gas tragedy and ask: Whose responsibility is to clean up the site? And what can the world learn from Bhopal's story?

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