Bhopal disaster

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2021
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The night of 3rd December marked an industrial disaster when more than 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India that instantly led to the death of approximately 3,800 people and causing permanent injuries for thousands more. The company involved shamelessly tried to avoid its legal responsibility. Nonetheless, a sum of $470 million was paid as compensation, a considerably small amount in comparison to the impact from the consequences of this tragedy.

The aftermath of the disaster indicated the need for international standards for environmental safety and preventive strategies to sustain from similar accidents. India has experienced rapid industrialization since the disaster. Despite some positive changes to government policies and behavior in several industries, rapid and poorly regulated industrial growth still remains exposing India to a major threat. Degrading of environmental practices with adverse consequences to human health continues to occur throughout India.


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The Bhopal disaster, also known as the Bhopal gas tragedy was an industrial disaster that took place at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh releasing tons of toxic chemicals and gases. This report is carried out with the objective of obtaining sufficient knowledge of the entire tragedy that took place and providing a detailed substantive summary of the mishap. Firstly, objectives and the management structure of the Union Carbide are discussed in this report to gain an overview of the company involved and its practices.

Subsequently, an observation is done with regards to the industrial processes and operations of the plant to understand the on goings of the plant. The critical area of this report summarizes the key risks and contributing factors that ultimately led to the accident which provides an insight of the flaws in the plant. The consequences of the aftermath are then identified to provide an overview of the negative impact resulting from the disaster followed by a brief discussion on the improvements that should be done in the management systems to prevent similar accidents from happening in the near future.

Objective and structure of the management

The Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a chemical factory which formed its establishment in 1969 near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh in India and was owned by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and the Indian authorities. Pesticides such as carbaryl was produced in this plant and in 1979, a new addition was made whereby the methyl isocyanate (MIC) plant was introduced to the site. Prior to 1979, the methyl isocyanate was imported from its parent company in the United States and India was one of the three dozen countries whereby the parent company had affiliates and business interest.

It was stated that the UCC had done extensive research on the chemical and had sufficient knowledge on handling the chemical. Methyl Isocyanate, one of the many intermediates used in pesticides is known to be a very hazardous chemical which weighs much lighter than water but twice the weight of air. In the event that the gas escapes to the atmosphere, it will remain close to ground and this highly sensitive chemical can react with many substances which could cause serious damage.

UCIL was proud to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1984 and was making sales of approximately $200 million annually whereby 14 plants were being operated and it was segregated into 5 operating divisions making it a diversified manufacturing concern. The shares were publicly traded on the Stock Exchange 24% of these shares were owned by government run insurance companies whilst 50. 9% of the shares were owned by UCC as part of a corporate global business strategy. Due to its centralized location in India which gave it a competitive edge, Bhopal was chosen as the site for the UCIL’s plant.

Transporting products were eased by the existence of railway systems that pned around the country which evidently brought to extensive cost savings. Furthermore, the location of the plant being situated nearby a large lake guaranteed sufficient water supple for the chemical processes. Electricity needs were also available in Bhopal to supply enough electricity to the plant that enabled the plant to operate 24 hours. The origin on the Bhopal plant was to supply pesticide in order to protect the Indian agricultural production.

These pesticides were made to cater to the Indian market and to gain the ability to transform its agricultural sector into a modern activity. No doubt the benefits, the plant also had its perks. India is still nonetheless a developing country which at current still lacks the infrastructure necessary to support this chemical plant. Nevertheless, companies invested in the plant failing to realize the flaws in the infrastructure. The impracticality of the plant’s management brought the creation of a low cost plant with minimal safety features. UCIL also had weak policies, procedures and regulations for their workers.

The management’s goals and missions were set beyond the plant’s capability and this is said to be one of the main causes of the tragedy.

Industrial processes and operation union

Carbide is a known plant that produces the pesticide plant in the Indian City of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh for agriculture purposes in India. Using MIC as an intermediate, an alternative trademark brand name for carbaryl is also known as Sevin. Until 1979, MIC was imported from the United States of America. Bayer, another known manufacturer successfully produced carbaryl without using MIC which evidently led to a greater manufacturing cost.

Methyl isocyanate (MIC) is an organic compound that consists of molecules and in 1888, it was discovered as an ester of isocyanic acid. The production of carbate pesticides such as carbaryl, carbofuran, methomyl and aldicarb is an intermediate chemical of Methyl isocyanate. These pesticides were also being used in the production of rubber and adhesives. Methyl isocyanate is a very hazardous chemical which can lead to chronic diseases and death. The chemical process or route that was used in Bhopal plant was to form a reaction between the methylamine with phosgene which could bring to the production of methyl isocyanate.

Subsequently, this methyl isocyanate was then reacted with 1 – naphthol to form the end product. This route varies from the MIC free route used elsewhere in which the similar raw materials are used but in a different manufacturing order. This process would begin by forming a reaction between the phosgene and naphtol to produce chloroformate ester which would then be reacter with methyl amine. Either one of these processes would require the chemicals to be stored in large tanks. In the operational side, the plant workers were encouraged to use English manuals, even though only a minority of them had a grasp of the language.

Only six of the original twelve operators remained in service with MIC by 1984. There were no personnel to take on the position of a maintenance supervisor to be placed on the night duty and furthermore, instrument readings were only taken every two hours which differs from the normal practice. Through a union, workers made a strike and complained about these difficulties but no attention was given to them. The refrigeration system was designed to inhibit the volatilization of MIC whereby based on the manuals, it was advised that the MIC should be kept at 20 degrees.

However, since May 1984 this refrigeration system had been shut down in Bhopal. Current practice shows that the methyl isocyanate should be kept below 5C and should be checked on all the time. Steam boilers were also used for the purposes of cleaning the pipes.

Risks that lead to the accident

Bhopal gas disaster was an industrial tragedy that took place at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. At midnight on 3rd December 1984, it was reported that the plant had accidently released Methyl isocyanate gas and this mishap was exposed to more than 500,000 people.

Official death toll announced by the government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed that a total of 3,787 deaths were the result of this gas tragedy. Factors leading to this tremendous gas leak include the use of hazardous chemicals such as MIC instead of a less dangerous but more expensive chemical. It was also noted that the flare tower and the vent gas scrubber had been dysfunctional for the past 5 months before the disaster took place. This eventually led to the gas scrubber not performing its function to treat the escaping gases with sodium hydroxide that subsequently brought the concentration down to a safe level.

Investigations in the aftermath of the disaster pointed out that even if the scrubber was in a good working condition, the disaster would not have been prevailed as the maximum pressure it could handle was only one-quarter of that which was present in the mishap. Improper designing of the flare tower itself contributed to the tragedy as the tower could only support one-quarter of the volume of gas that was leaked in 1984. Since the cease of production in the early 1980’s, the maintenance of the plant has continuously deteriorated up to an intolerable limit which resulted in the failure of several safety systems.

The steam boiler which existed to clean the pipes was out of service for reasons which are unknown. Furthermore, the omission of the slip blind plates installation has played its role in causing this disaster. This omission had incidentally led to a large amount water from the pipe cleanings to leak into the MIC tanks through faulty valves leading the temperature to rise to a level whereby the tank was not designed to support that subsequently resulted in a large amount of toxic gases to be released..

The MIC tank itself has been malfunctioned for roughly a week which caused other tanks to be used in that week. Instead of taking corrective action and repairing the dysfunctional tank, it was just left to “stew”. Overall to conclude, the build up in temperature and pressure was strongly believed to be the cause in the magnitude of the toxic gas released. Economic conditions also played its part in contributing to this mishap. It was said that the leaking of the large amount of water into the MIC tank was also due to bad maintenance and leaking valves.

The pipes were not repaired as it was believed to be very costly and time consuming. Safety systems including the MIC tank refrigeration systems were also shut down to in order to bring cost savings and it is of the opinion that the MIC refrigeration system alone would have prevented the tragedy from happening. Material corroding that took place in the pipelines was also the contributing factor to this disaster. Carbon steel valves that were being used in the factory would corrode when exposed to acid.

Based on investigations, a leaking of carbon steel valves was found on the night of the disaster. Overall, several factors led to this industrial disaster namely caused by poor maintenance and regulations.

Consequences of the effect of the accident

The Bhopal disaster can be said to be one of the world’s worst catastrophe that took place at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal, India. On 3rd December 1984, the plant released MIC and other toxic gases exposing more than 500,000 people.

The city of Bhopal was surrounded with a mixture of poisonous gases causing great panic as people woke up with burning sensations in their lungs. Based on the government of Madhya Pradesh, the effect of the hazardous gas had caused 3,787 confirmed deaths and leaving many trampled in panic. Other sources estimated that around 8,000 people died within the next 72 hours from gas related diseases and roughly 100,000 – 200,000 people are estimated to have permanent injuries at different degrees.

Mass funerals and cremations were taking place as well as disposal of bodies in the Namada River. The health care system became tremendously overloaded as approximately 170,000 people required treatments at hospitals and temporary dispensaries. Authorities had marked 36 wards as being “gas affected”. Acute symptoms from the gases are burning in the respiratory tract, eyes, breathlessness, vomiting and choking which ultimately led to death. Humans were not the only ones affected from this terrible tragedy. Approximately 2,000 buffaloes, goats and other animals’ carcasses were collected and buried.

The effect on trees could be seen immediately as the leaves yellowed and fell of within a few days. Food supplies became scarce due to the fear being felt by suppliers. Further shortages were also caused once fishing activities was prohibited. Overall, this mishap has brought fear and has frightened many people as the Bhopal city was turned into a toxic city. A settlement was finally concluded in 1989, whereby UCC agreed to pay the Indian government a sum of $470 million in full and final settlement of its civil liability. After the lap f 25 years, 390 tons of toxic chemicals were left neglected at the plant which continued to pollute the ground water which affected thousands of residents who relied on it.

Improvements to prevent the accident

Substantive investigations pointed out that the main reason which escalated this disaster is due to the management’s intention on reducing their expenses. The design of the plant had been modified by the Indian engineers in order to bring cost savings. This practice should be improvised and the plant should be designed thoroughly and properly to support the volume of production and the type of chemical produced.

A contributing factor to the tragedy was weak management practices that should be made more stringent. A proactive policy should be adopted whereby dysfunctional items and parts of the plant should be fixed immediately instead of prolonging the situation despite it being costly and time consuming. Strict maintenance should be carried out on a routine basis and the MIC tanks should be continuously monitored to ensure that all processes are smooth going. Rules and regulations set for the plant should be adhered and complied to prevent any setbacks. As the plant’s production involves a hazardous chemical, more experienced workers in dealing with such reactive chemicals should be hired instead on focusing on low labor cost. Trainings should be provided continuously to improve their expertise. Furthermore, extensive research and studies on how to handle chemicals of this sort should be carried out prior to any processes to ensure that the staff has sufficient knowledge on what to do and what to expect.

Despite sufficient trainings and research, mishaps can occur any at given time. Following that, it is always best to have a detailed contingency and back up plans in order to contain any rotten situation. A good practice is always to expect the unexpected in order to be ready for mishaps. This tragedy has affected the lives of many in the Bhopal city. It is recommended that such factories as this plant should not be located in residential areas and best located in the outskirts to prevent residents being exposed to toxic gases.

Ultimately, this disaster would have been prevailed with good management practices, abiding to rules and regulations set and also focusing on safety systems instead of cost savings.


The Bhopal gas disaster marked one of the most tragic accidents in the world. The pesticide plant in Bhopal, India was managed by UCIL, a subsidiary of the UCC, had begun the production of a hazardous chemical, methyl isocyanate in 1979. The findings from this research pointed out that UCIL had weak policies and regulations and was prioritizing more on cost savings at the expense of the plant’s safety. The operational side of the plant was suffering from lack of staff namely there was no maintenance supervisor responsible to monitor the MIC tanks. Furthermore, critical parts of the plants were being left unattended when it was dysfunctional due to it being costly and time consuming to repair. Safety systems of the plant were being comprised in order to reduce expenses. To conclude, the main improvement to be done is to emphasize on the plants design to support the volume and type of production.

Stringent policies and regulations should be set and adhered to in order to prevent similar accidents. Management should divert from a cost savings mindset and priorities more on the plant’s safety systems. Despite being 25 years since the incident, tons of toxic chemicals were still abandoned at the plant and continued to pollute the ground water that affected thousands of residents. Overall, this disaster has brought awareness that international standards for environmental safety should be enforced to prevent similar mishaps.


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Bhopal disaster. (2018, Sep 20). Retrieved from

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