Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo July 10, 2018

The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster Is Still Unfolding


Media file: bhopal-union_carbide_2.jpg

More than 30 years after the world's worst industrial accident, the people of Bhopal are still...

In Bhopal, residents who survived the massive gas leak and those who arrived later continue to deal with the consequences. Image by Raj Sarma. India, 2018.
In Bhopal, residents who survived the massive gas leak and those who arrived later continue to deal with the consequences. Image by Raj Sarma. India, 2018.

In old Bhopal, not far from the small Indian city’s glitzy new shops and gorgeous lakes, is the abandoned Union Carbide factory. Here, in one ramshackle building, are hundreds of broken brown bottles crusted with the white residue of unknown chemicals. Below the corroding skeleton of another, drops of mercury glitter in the sun. In the far corner of the site is the company’s toxic-waste dump, shrouded in a sickly green moss. Not 15 feet away, a scrawny boy of about 6 tries to join a game of cricket. A few skinny cows graze next to a large, murky puddle. Strewn on the ground are torn plastic bags, yellowed newspapers, stained paper cups. And in the air, the pungent fumes of chlorinated hydrocarbons.

On December 3, 1984, 40 tons of a toxic gas spewed from the factory and scorched the throats, eyes, and lives of thousands of people outside these walls. It was—still is—the world’s deadliest industrial disaster. For a brief time, the Bhopal gas tragedy, as it became known, raised urgent questions about how multinational companies and governments should respond when the unthinkable happens. But it didn’t take long for the world’s attention to shift, beginning with the Chernobyl nuclear accident a little more than a year later.

In the decades since, many other sites of industrial waste—in New Jersey, Missouri, Ohio—have been cleaned up. But this 70-acre site in Bhopal has, apart from the riotous jungle basil, remained mostly unchanged. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC); its former Indian subsidiary; its current owner, DowDuPont; the state government of Madhya Pradesh; and the central Indian government have all played an endless game of pass the buck. While this charade plays on, and people continue to think of Bhopal’s tragedy as one horrific night in 1984, the site still hosts hundreds of tons of contaminated waste. The Bhopal disaster is, in fact, still unfolding.

From the wooden bed outside her two-room house, Munni bi, the grande dame of Annu Nagar, has a wide lens on the devastation. Munni bi’s bed is less than 200 feet from a massive pit that UCC filled with toxic sludge, close enough to witness the damage the ganda pani—dirty water—has wrought.

Right next door is 15-year-old Fiza, who didn’t speak for the first five years of her life, and still has heart palpitations, dizzy spells, and headaches. The young woman who grew up two doors down, Tabassum, now has a toddler who doesn’t eat much or speak or cry and has seizures. Down the street is Obais, a spindly legged 13-year-old with black pustules all over his body—so painful and grotesque that he rarely leaves the house. Across the street from him is 12-year-old Tauseeb, who is intellectually disabled. And there’s Najma, the sweet, young woman who lost her mother to tongue cancer and now sits in front of her house all day, smiling and occasionally shouting out guttural gibberish to passersby. And then there is the house where one daughter has fused bones in her legs, and another has a hole in her heart.

If people were to paint a red cross on every door that harbors illness, as they did during the bubonic plague in England, few doors in Annu Nagar, a small slum in Bhopal, would remain unmarked. The houses of Munni bi’s two sons would each display a cross—in the house behind her bed is Bushra, her 14-year-old granddaughter, who is “not quite right” and whose “eyes hurt.” Across the street, her grandson, Anees, was born with skin that looked burned and limbs that lay flaccid and useless; he died five years ago at age 4, never having spoken a word. Three years ago, Munni bi was diagnosed with bladder cancer, a common complaint in these parts. When I visit her on a blisteringly hot day in March of last year, her cancer is temporarily under control, but the diabetic sores on her thighs keep her in bed, where she can do little but lie still, rail against fate, and survey the desolation.

“This is all because of the water,” Munni bi told me that day. “They have made us drink poison.”

Annu Nagar is one of 22 communities where the groundwater has been known for nearly 20 years to contain toxic levels of chlorinated solvents. Six years ago, responding to relentless efforts from activists, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the city to install pipes that bring in clean water from the Narmada River. But the pipes coming into some houses run right through sewers, and on rainy days, filth and feces mingle with the clean water. In the meantime, each monsoon may be carrying this toxic plume farther. The most recent survey suggests there are 20 more communities where the water is contaminated. In March of this year, the Supreme Court ordered that the city ensure clean water to these areas, too—and that it undertake a project to lay down sewage and drainage networks for the entire city.

These are reactive solutions to an enduring—and expanding—problem, but the bigger question is: What would it take to clean up the waste?

When I posed this question to Vishvas Sarang, the state minister charged with caring for these communities, he told me plans for the cleanup are underway. He said he had written to the Central Pollution Control Board, India’s equivalent of the EPA, and that he was confident it would be finished quickly. “It’s just a matter of two, three months. It will get done, it’s not a big job.”

That was more than a year ago.

The factory in Bhopal launched at a time when India was facing severe food shortages. The country launched its Green Revolution in the early 1960s in an urgent bid to feed its growing population. UCC was one of the early beneficiaries of this new commitment to technology, and began marketing its pesticides with the slogan “Science helps build a new India.” In 1969, UCC built a plant in Bhopal to manufacture carbaryl (sold under the brand name Sevin) and alidcarb (Temik). At first, the company imported methyl isocyanate, the toxic gas required to make the pesticides, but by 1980, it had begun manufacturing the gas on site. MIC is colorless and heavier than air, is extremely toxic, and irritates the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes of the respiratory tract.

The company proceeded carefully, ensuring that the Bhopal plant had all the same modern technologies as its sister plant in West Virginia. The staff held rigorous training sessions for the workers, and installed a sophisticated, computerized system, just like the one in West Virginia, to alert workers to a leak. They set up loud alarm systems that could be heard for miles, distributed fact sheets about MIC to all the local hospitals, and held seminars for medical personnel on treating MIC exposure. By 1984, even as sales of Sevin tanked and the plant was operating at a loss, the company retained the full number of skilled workers and kept up its safety systems.

At least, that would have been the responsible way to run a plant producing a highly toxic substance. But UCC didn’t do any of this.

The abandoned Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Image by Raj Sarma. India, 2018.
The abandoned Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Image by Raj Sarma. India, 2018.

In fact, says Kumkum Modwel, a physician based in Connecticut who was a medical officer at the factory from 1975 to 1982, UCC’s operation “was a case study in how not to do things.” (When reached for comment, the company’s current owner, DowDuPont, directed me to previous statements on their website.) Modwel (née Saxena) joined the company as a starry-eyed youngster, excited to be a part of this booming American company in her sleepy hometown. Things were sunny at first, but then small accidents and safety lapses began niggling at her. She was troubled by the company’s cutbacks on safety as profit margins plunged and truckloads of unsold pesticide returned to the factory. Her turning point came in 1981, when a worker she knew well, Ashraf Mohammed Khan, died horribly after being drenched in phosgene, a precursor to MIC. Shaken, Modwel says she tried to get her superiors to improve the safety procedures, but to no avail. “I left because no one would listen to me. I left in utter disgust,” she says. “This is not the way you run a huge corporate plant handling lethal chemicals. This is how not to do things.”

Even more damning is the account of T. R. Chouhan, an MIC plant operator at the time of the disaster and a vocal critic of UCC. Chouhan and others told government investigators that months before the leak, managers shut down a refrigeration unit that was intended to keep the MIC tank cool enough to prevent accidents. One of the three safety systems in place had been out of service for weeks; the other had broken down days before the accident. Small leaks of MIC had become so commonplace that on December 2, a supervisor discovered a leak of MIC around 11:30 p.m., and put off dealing with it till after his tea break. The alarm that did sound was the same one the workers heard many times a week for other reasons, so they paid it no heed. Within an hour, the runaway reaction had generated enough pressure to break open the safety valve and release 40 tons of MIC and other chemicals into the air.

The swift wind that blew that night delivered the lethal fumes to an area of 40 square kilometers near the site. Those who didn’t choke to death woke gasping for breath, their eyes burning from the toxic gas and their mouths frothing. If only they had known, all they had needed to do was climb to a higher spot. Or covered their faces with a wet cloth. As it was, because MIC is twice as heavy as air, children were affected most. With no training and no knowledge of what they were treating, the doctors could do little to help. Overnight, the city turned into a mausoleum.

No one knows exactly how many people died that night. The official government estimates began around 3,000 and have since been revised to 5,295. (Officials from India’s Central Pollution Control Board did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.) But other sources, including Amnesty International, say at least 7,000 people died just within the first three days, and about 25,000 people overall have succumbed to MIC exposure. Another 500,000 have lingering health problems.

The government’s estimates for deaths makes no sense, notes Rachna Dhingra, who has been an activist in Bhopal since 2003. “Look at it this way,” she says: The government has approved pensions for 5,000 widows. “If you are giving pensions to 5,000 widows, then how can the figure of deaths be only 5,295 overall? It’s not just that only men died, yeah? Women too must have died, young children would have died.”

Against this chaotic backdrop, UCC settled in 1989 for $470 million in damages, with each gas-exposed person getting 25,000 Indian rupees (roughly $2,200 at the time). Under the terms of the settlement, UCC continued to deny liability for the incident. Dhingra and others have been trying ever since to get more compensation for those affected, to get the site cleaned up, and to prevent the devastation from spreading.

So far, they’ve had little luck. Dow Chemical Company acquired UCC in 2001. But Dow, which in September 2017 merged with DuPont to form a $130 billion behemoth, says its purchase of UCC excludes liabilities from Bhopal. In a series of statements addressing the disaster, Dow says responsibility for the cleanup really lies with UCC’s Indian partner at the time of the leak, Union Carbide India. That company, now called Eveready Industries India, places the blame squarely at UCC’s feet, saying, “The obligation and liability of the cleanup, if any, should be that of the erstwhile owners of UCIL, viz, UCC U.S.” UCC, for its part, says UCIL really owned and managed the factory (even though UCC owned 50.9 percent of UCIL), and that the state of Madhya Pradesh, which owns the land, is responsible for cleaning up the site. The state of Madhya Pradesh says it is unequipped for cleanup and defers to the federal government. The federal government has named Dow in a “curative petition” intended to make up for the inadequate 1989 settlement, and is asking for $1.2 billion (compared with the $8 billion the activists are demanding). And around it goes.

Every few years, a new character enters this theater of the absurd. Two years ago, that was Sarang, the now-46-year-old minister of gas-tragedy relief and rehabilitation—that’s really his title, though most people drop the tragedy when talking about him—and a native Bhopali. His job is to make sure that people exposed to the gas, and those still affected by the disaster, are taken care of. (Most people who live in Annu Nagar and thereabouts are Muslim, and Sarang’s group, an ardent champion of Hindus, is often vehemently anti-Muslim.) Sarang is not the first gas-relief minister, but unlike his predecessors, he tweets, holds frequent press conferences, and loves to engage with the public. “Sarang is a different creature altogether,” says Dhingra. “He is very concerned about his image—very, very … and he has big political aspirations.”

When I asked for a meeting with Sarang, he summoned me to his house. Raj Sarma, the photographer I was traveling with, and I arrived at Sarang’s house on a balmy evening to find a horde of people waiting to speak to him. An aide showed us into a spacious room with bright-pink seats. When Sarang joined us about 20 minutes later, he was polite and charming: He insisted I have some food and tea, worried the snacks were too spicy for me, and complimented me on my Hindi—my protestations that I was not hungry, am no stranger to spicy food, and am fluent in Hindi because I grew up in India seemed to make no difference.

Every Bhopali older than 33 has a story about the leak, so I wasn’t surprised when Sarang told me his: He and his parents escaped to safer grounds in one car, but a mob hijacked the car his sisters were in, leaving them exposed to the gas; they survived. (In India, in those days especially, only wealthy families could afford two cars.) Because he is also a gas victim, Sarang said, he understands the plight of the people in the affected communities, and is committed to bettering their lives. He has made many promises along these lines: to introduce “smart cards” for everyone so that the local hospitals can track and coordinate their care; to renew the widows’ pensions, which stopped arriving around the time he began, then restarted for a limited number of widows this January; to build roads and parks in the neighborhoods and improve their quality of life; to offer better jobs and economic opportunities.

I told Sarang about Munni bi’s problems with getting medicines she needed from the hospital intended to serve that community. He immediately called an aide, threatened to fire whoever was in charge at the hospital, and told me Munni bi would get her meds. (When I went back to Annu Nagar the next day, her neighbor Sakina had been able to pick up the medicines.)

Munni bi lies on her bed outside her house in Annu Nagar. Image by Raj Sarma. India, 2018.
Munni bi lies on her bed outside her house in Annu Nagar. Image by Raj Sarma. India, 2018.

Not all of Sarang’s promises come true, however. In a follow-up phone interview in December, Sarang told me that the pensions were starting up again, that parks were under construction, and that gas-exposed people who needed bone-marrow transplants would soon be able to get them for free at private hospitals in Bhopal. When I asked Dhingra about this, she laughed outright. “What lies he’s spreading,” she said. The hospitals are nowhere near sophisticated enough to offer bone-marrow transplants, she said, and apart from the inaugural “prayers” offered at the sites of construction, nothing new had sprung up. When Sarang first became minister, she said, she and other activists were optimistic that this savvy, energetic young man could shake up the status quo. “We were fooled for many months, too” she says. “It’s all a big facade he puts up.” When I asked Sarang about skepticism about these projects from locals, he insisted that the initiatives were all moving forward.

At his house that evening in March 2017, every time I probed why the site hasn’t been cleaned up yet or what his plans are for remediation, Sarang asked me to turn off my recorder. On the record, he told me his main goal is to establish a Hiroshima-like memorial on the factory site—because, he said, that would first require a cleanup. He lamented how difficult it can be to get things done in India. But he also told me I have a responsibility to make India look good in the world press. He said the cleanup could be dealt with quickly, but also that it’s extremely complicated. Like a skilled politician, he supplied different answers at different junctures, and seemed to believe himself each time. But he became visibly agitated when I questioned his sincerity. “Do you know who I am? You don’t know who I am,” he said. “I am a man of the land.”

The gas leak and its aftermath have split Bhopal’s residents: those who could afford to get away, either that night or later; and those who stay bound to the soil by their financial circumstances. At the boutique inn we stayed in, about a 20-minute drive from the factory, the air was fresh and there was mineral water aplenty. The proprietor’s daughter-in-law, a fashionable young woman in her 20s, laughingly told us she had never been to the site and wasn’t sure where it was.

Munni bi is the richest of her neighbors, but that’s not saying much. The houses her sons built are small and dark, with an inescapable stench of sewage and sickness. Like many of Annu Nagar’s residents, Munni bi was never exposed to the gas. Her family moved in years after UCC decamped, lured by the cheap land. At first they lived in makeshift homes of corrugated metal and tarps. But several years ago, they saved enough money to build pukka homes of cement and concrete.

She and her neighbors quickly realized that the soil around the solar evaporation pond is dangerous: People who tried to make stoves from the mud broke out in horrific rashes and spiked fevers. “If you dig there in the evening, you’ll be sick at night, you’ll get fevers; there’s that much poison in the mud,” says Sakina, 38, who lives three doors down from Munni bi. “Some kids died in that pond, too, so our kids don’t go there.”

Sakina, her husband, and her three children live in a small shack with walls painted purple and white, and a bright-purple door that’s always open. The family moved to the neighborhood about a decade ago, when their daughters Sana and Shamaiya were 5 and 3. A year later, Sakina gave birth to a son. From the start, the boy seemed ill and threw up constantly; he died before he was a year old. The following year, she had another boy, Aris. This child, too, developed “brain fever” two days after birth and, although he recovered, is still often sick. Soon after the family moved to Annu Nagar, little Sana had slowly begun losing her voice. She spoke softer and softer, until one day, when she was 8, her parents found her with big blisters all over; she had been scalded, but hadn’t been able to cry out.

With help from Munni bi and other neighbors, Sakina gathered money to take her daughter by train to New Delhi. Doctors there diagnosed Sana with respiratory papillomatosis—a rare condition in which a virus infects the voice box—and inserted a tube through a hole in her neck to help her breathe.

Like Munni bi, Sakina is convinced that the water she and her children drank for many years is to blame for all these ills. “When we brought normal kids here who had no problems before, and then we drank the water and this happened, of course we think it’s because of the water,” she says.

Munni bi’s relative affluence and age may have given her pole position in the neighborhood, but Sakina’s physical stamina and fearlessness make her formidable. In 2008, Sakina was one of the women who, along with Dhingra, marched 700 kilometers (about 435 miles) to New Delhi. The women fasted outside the prime minister’s house until he listened to their demands. It took the government many more years to take action. In 2014, in response to an order from the Supreme Court, the city finally installed pipes that bring clean water to these communities.

“The water before was really dirty,” says Nasreen, 38, who lives down an alley across from Munni bi’s house. After Nasreen moved to Annu Nagar about 15 years ago, she had one child who was stillborn; the other, 12-year-old Tauseeb, has a low IQ and attends a special school. Nasreen recalls that the water was often yellow, sometimes red, and smelled foul. It looks and smells better now, but comes for only an hour a day. “Sometimes it’s 2 p.m., sometimes 12, sometimes in the evening … the tap has no time,” she says. “We have to sit and wait.”

On days when the pipes don’t sing at all, people still boil the contaminated water from the hand pumps to bathe and wash clothes—as they were doing on one of the days I visited Annu Nagar. “The clean water hasn’t come for three days,” Mohammed Akhtar, 56, told me. “We drink this because we have no choice.”

When I asked Sarang about this, he flatly denied any problems with the water supply. “Pipes break sometimes,” he said. “That happens even in my house. This is not America.” He also told me he does not believe any of the reports of water contamination, and has asked the Central Pollution Control Board to conduct a fresh analysis. As of late May, they had yet to respond.

There’s also little official attention to the health effects of the gas or water. The only large epidemiological project on people exposed to the gas was abandoned for 15 years. The project changed hands several times and so the scientists lost track of 88 percent of the initial cohort. Activists were able to prove that some of the people who were sent out to conduct government health surveys never did so, and instead filled out the forms with bogus answers.

There is one rigorous study underway that might provide some answers. Over the past five years, the Canadian researcher Shree Mulay and volunteers working with Sambhavana, a nonprofit clinic set up by activists, have been collecting data on mortality, birth defects, fertility, cancer, and many other aspects of people’s health. The study includes data from people exposed to the gas who then moved away and did not drink the water; those who, like Munni bi and Sakina, moved into the neighborhoods after the leak and so were only ever exposed to the water; those who were exposed to both; and those who were exposed to neither. The researchers also tried to include controls matched by socioeconomic class, income, level of education, and family size. With about 5,000 families in each group, the study includes 100,000 people in all. Mulay’s team is still analyzing the data, but preliminary results indicate that people exposed to the gas or the water or both have a higher incidence of cancer, tuberculosis, and paralysis than those exposed to neither. They also suggest that gas-exposed people have 10 times the rate of cancer, particularly liver, lung, abdominal, throat, and oral cancers, compared to the other groups.

Mulay declined to discuss these results because they are being submitted for publication—and because she first wants to make sure the analysis accounts for all the confounds that may skew the data. “One has to be able to say, ‘What is due to the general poverty of the entire population and what is specifically due to the gas or the water that they have been exposed to?’” Mulay says. “That’s why it is such a complicated study.”

For example, Mulay notes that in the heart of Bhopal is a metalworks factory that likely spews toxic gases. It might be difficult—if not impossible—to tease out how much exposures like that contribute to the illnesses in Annu Nagar.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the most obvious possibility—the cesspool of toxic sludge right next to the neighborhood.

In the early years of the factory, UCC dumped its waste into 21 unlined pits within the site. This was not, at the time, an unusual practice, although companies in the United States had begun to move away from it. In 1977, UCC built three solar evaporation ponds about 400 meters north of the factory, and piped untreated waste directly into the ponds. Thin liners were put in to keep the chemicals from seeping into the ground, and the strong Bhopal sun was supposed to take care of the rest. But the liners quickly fell apart. Memos in 1982 from the Bhopal plant to the company’s headquarters warned that the ponds were leaking, and might contaminate the groundwater. And local farmers lodged complaints that the company’s runoff was killing their cattle and their crops. The 1984 disaster derailed the conversations. After the tragedy, UCC closed down the factory. The tanks and vats on the site were finally emptied in 1989, and about 360 tons of the most hazardous waste was locked up in 2005. But the rest—corroding pipes, bottles of unnamed chemicals, and the massive waste pit—have remained untouched.

Today the factory is guarded by a staff of 14, although they only see a few visitors a month—except in December, around the anniversary of the disaster. When Sarma and I visited the site in March 2017, two guards accompanied us on the tour. For 200 rupees (about $3), they looked the other way as we took photos. Chouhan, who gave us a tour of the site, pointed out the drops of mercury sparkling in the soil. He gestured at the brush all around and said: “If you cut down this grass, you’ll find a pond of mercury.”

As we approached the farthest corner of the site from its entrance, we discovered several visitors—men and cattle—who were smarter than us and had simply walked in through gaping holes in the wall. One of the young men playing cricket was 22-year-old Zubaid, who said he has been sneaking into the site since he was a child. “There isn’t really anywhere else for us to go,” he said. His parents had both been exposed to the gas. His father died years ago of respiratory problems; his mother still struggles to catch her breath. I asked him whether he knew that the soil and water might be dangerous. He shrugged and said, “We’re all fine.”

One of the waste pits Union Carbide left behind in Bhopal. Image by Raj Sarma. India, 2018.
One of the waste pits Union Carbide left behind in Bhopal. Image by Raj Sarma. India, 2018.

Everyone knows that the gas left a lasting mark on people’s health. But it took years for people to acknowledge that the water may be contaminated. In the mid-1990s, the solar ponds were once again covered with a plastic liner and topped with soil in an attempt to convert them into primitive landfills. But the liner is visibly torn in multiple spots, and they turn into cesspits with every monsoon.

Since 1990, multiple organizations have documented unsafe levels of pesticides and chlorinated solvents in the soil and water. Unfortunately, none of the reports validates the others; each sampled different locations at different times.

The lack of consensus even within the government agencies stalled all talk of the key problem: who should clean up the site, how, and when. The government’s response to the disaster has been slow, inept, and crippled by corruption—predictably so for this country. But administration after administration has also been bafflingly resistant to offers of help from international groups.

Experts in waste management are flabbergasted to learn that the site of the world’s largest industrial disaster has yet to be decontaminated. “Hoo boy, it sounds like somebody with some money and some understanding has to come in there and clean the place up,” says Robert Chinery, who served as acting director of the Center for Environmental Health at the New York State Department of Health.

At least some of the problems have clear solutions, based on experiences at other sites. In 2004, Greenpeace commissioned waste-management experts based in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States, who came back with a plan for cleaning up the soil.

One possible solution is simply to move the waste to a secure landfill, but no such location exists in India. Another is to incinerate the waste in a plant set up to handle this sort of material—a plan under discussion for the Bhopal waste for more than a decade. Done right, the waste would need to be burned at an extremely high temperature, say 800 degrees Celsius, then the gases given enough time to decompose, mostly into carbon dioxide. An air-pollution control system would trap particulates that are given off during the process. And the air would be closely monitored afterward for hazardous emissions.

This was a common way to deal with industrial waste until the 1990s, but the fear of hazardous emissions has almost put a stop to it in the United States, says Jurgen Exner, a waste-management expert and one of the authors of the Greenpeace report. There are only a few such plants remaining in the United States and elsewhere. Over the years, many plans have been proposed and halted: shipping the waste to Germany or to a site in the neighboring state of Gujarat, neither of which happened because of protests in those areas.

In 2015, the government conducted a test run of incineration with 10 tons of the locked-up waste at a plant in Pithampur, about a three-hour drive from Bhopal. There are serious concerns about the plant’s ability to handle this waste, and the report from that test is not public (similar tests in the United States usually are)—but Sarang says it was a success. In fact, he told me in March 2017, the rest of the waste would also be incinerated in a matter of two to three months. “That’s not an issue,” he said. “It’s not a big job.” As of December, there had been no progress on this front.

Sarang was speaking about the 360 tons of locked-up waste. There’s still the matter of all of the soil, not to mention the groundwater.

To assess the scale of the groundwater contamination, what’s required is a geological study. The way to do that is to sink several wells around the site and sample the wells both vertically and laterally to analyze the water and the toxic plume. “If you just go out and take random samples from existing wells, maybe even drinking-water wells, then that doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s going in the groundwater,” Chinery says. “It’s usually the job of the government to make sure that’s done correctly.”

Chinery and Exner both say it would not be at all surprising if, as the activists say, the chemicals have traveled as far as three kilometers from the site. If there are fissures in the ground under the surface, chlorinated solvents would collect in those fissures and slowly dissolve into the groundwater. Exner says he once saw chlorinated solvents three miles from where they had been dumped at a site in Missouri. “That’s why chlorinated solvents in groundwater are such a big problem,” he says. “It takes years and years for it all to dissolve out of there.” For example, he says, a small amount of carbon tetrachloride can contaminate millions of gallons of water.

Cleaning up the water is a daunting task. These chemicals would be difficult to treat in the ground, so the solution—once the source and the direction of the plume are known—would be to pump it all out and treat it, says Chinery. That process could take many years and run up to millions of dollars. But “if the source is still there, and the plume is still there, it’s just going to keep moving.”

All told, the Greenpeace report estimated that it would cost $30 million over four years. DowDuPont’s revenue for 2017 was $62 billion.

The people of Annu Nagar, meanwhile, stay rooted to their homes, unable to muster the money or resources to move their families out of the danger zone. With help from Dhingra and other activists, Sakina and the other women and children are learning how to fight for their rights—either by calling bureaucrats repeatedly, protesting on the streets, or talking to the press.

For Munni bi, however, it is all already too late.

“What will you do for me? You won't come back; 50 people have come and gone,” she told me last year. “From drinking the water, the public is dying, that’s what’s happening. Our suffering is slowly killing us. And I don’t want to die.”

Munni bi died five months later.


navy halftone illustration of a female doctor with her arms crossed


Health Inequities

Health Inequities

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues