The Bhopal Disaster

Henri Fernandez
November 11, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: A memorial in Bhopal, India in memory of the 1984 disaster. (Source: Wikipedia Commons).

On December 3, 1984 the disaster in Bhopal, India became the worst industrial accident in history to date. [1] Not only did the gas leak immediately cause at least 3,800 deaths, but the leak also left 11,000 with disabilities. [2] About 30 of the 42 metric tons of the MIC gas stored in the tank leaked into the city of Bhopal, exposing 200,000 of the 800,000 citizens to the gas. [3] The disaster made clear the need for stronger international safety standards to prevent further industry disasters. [1] Since the Bhopal disaster, there have been some positive changes in governmental policy; however there are still many major concerns about new potential environmental disasters in India. [1]

Union Carbide Corporation Gas Leak

The company involved with the incident was Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). The operator of the plant was Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). [2] The plant that they built in Bhopal was for the manufacturing of Sevin, pesticide used throughout Asia. [1] UCC chose Bhopal for the plant because of its central location and its access to the transport. [1] But site was nonetheless problemic because it was zoned for light industrial and commercial use only, not for hazardous industry. [1]

On December 2, 1984 at 11:00 PM, an operator at the Bhopal plant noticed a leak of methyl isocyanate, otherwise known as "MIC" gas, and noticed increased pressure inside a storage tank. [1] Methyl isocyanate is the most toxic member of the isocyanate family. [3] MIC gas is extremely flammable and can vaporize at 20°C. [3] The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States has limited the exposure to MIC to 0.02 ppm during an 8-hour period. [3] At around 1:00 AM on December 3, there was a loud thunderous noise that resonated throughout the plant as the safety valve released MIC gas into the city of Bhopal. [1] In the next couple of hours there were thousands of dead bodies and animals on the streets. [1] An estimated 3,000 people died immediately and there has been an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 premature death reports in the next two decades. [1]

A year after the horrific incident, there were still related deaths to the disaster. 15 people exposed to MIC gas passed away. [4]

p align="justify">The UCC only ended up paying $470 million to the government in response, a small portion of the damage they inflicted. [1] This figure was based on the notion that only 3,000 people died and 102,000 suffered permanent disabilities. However, two decades later, the UCC disaster still has permanent effects on its citizens. [1]


The horrific tragedy in 1984 will haunt the citizens of Bhopal forever. [5] It is said that nowhere in the world are there more people with pulmonary fibrosis leading to pulmonary crippling. [5] One can see from the memorial in Bhopal shown in Fig. 1 that the disaster will always be on the minds of its citizens.

The UCC disaster in Bhopal caused thousands of deaths and did lasting damage. Since then, regulation of industrial plants has increased. The world at large is now taking more active steps to prevent other such disasters.

© Henri Fernandez. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] E. Broughton, "The Bhopal Disaster and Its Aftermath: A Review." Environmental Health 4, 6 (2005).

[2] J. B. Browning, "Union Carbide: Disaster at Bhopal," in Crisis Response: Inside Stories on Managing Image Under Siege (Visible Ink Press, 1993).

[3] R. Varma and D. R. Varma, "The Bhopal Disaster of 1984," Bull. Sci. Technol. Soc. 25, 37 (2005).

[4] S. Jasanoff, "The Bhopal Disaster and the Right to Know," Soc. Sci. Med, 27, 1113 (1988).

[5] R. K. Bisarya and S. Puri, "The Bhopal Gas Tragedy - A Perspective," J. Loss Prevent. Proc. 18, 209 (2005).