‘Bhopali’: the Union Carbide Disaster Revisited

Christine Gillette

More than 10,000 dead in 72 hours and 26 years later hundreds of thousands have since been affected in Bhopal, India. This was the result of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, and with so many injuries and fatalities, why is it that not many students have heard of it?

Max Carlson takes it upon himself as a young filmmaker to tell the story of the victims of the Bhopal industrial disaster that occurred on Dec. 3, 1984 in his feature documentary “Bhopali.”

Now onto what happened. In the 1970s a company called Union Carbide, an American corporation that has since been purchased by Dow Chemical Company, built a pesticide factory in a rural area of the city of Bhopal that had a population of about 800,000 at the time. Union Carbide produced carbaryl and used a dangerous chemical called methyl isocyanate (MIC) as an intermediate at this factory.

Although Union Carbide was an American corporation, everything about this factory was wrong.

During the 1980s, Union Carbide wanted to cut down on costs and one result was that the safety regulations at the factory became more lax which resulted in most of the safety systems to not function properly. Union Carbide cut the costs of the refrigeration unit that held the MIC, a chemical that should remain at 4.5 degrees Celsius. Most of the valves and pipelines were also in poor condition. These two factors caused the disaster.

Workers at the factory had to water wash the pipelines, but the pipelines were progressively becoming obstructed and solid deposits weren’t dissolving. This caused a back up of water, and on that December night the water flowed to the MIC storage tank and caused a heated chemical reaction, raising the temperature of the MIC to more than 400 degrees Celsius.

This immediately released a high volume of toxic gases that flowed into the air of the rural area of Bhopal in the middle of the night, a time when families were at home sleeping.

Union Carbide abandoned the factory after the disaster and left all the chemicals there. For the past 26 years those chemicals have been seeping into the ground water, contaminating the Bhopal’s citizens drinking water. Now, babies are being born with birth defects, cerebral palsy, malformed limbs, and mental disabilities; women are suffering early menopause at the age of 30,;and the list goes on.

“I found out about the disaster and about a month later I decided I wanted to go to Bhopal and make a documentary,” Carlson said. “I thought this would be a powerful documentary on a disaster that people should really know about.”

In 1989, Union Carbide reached a settlement and agreed to pay $470 million to the government of India for the disaster. This gave each family of the tragedy about $2,000 for a lifetime of pain and loss.

The people of Bhopal don’t want money: they want proper detoxification or neutralization treatment of the soil and removal of the abandoned factory.

Carlson follows survivors and families of the disaster. He mainly focuses on the children at The Chingari Trust, which is a rehabilitation center in Bhopal that was formed for children born with physical and mental disabilities caused by the Union Carbide disaster. It is these heart-warming stories of the children that really draw in the audience, to see their struggle with the effects of the disaster yet still have hope for a better future.

“It really got to me when I saw how helpless the parents looked when they would take their children to all of those hospital visits,” GCC photography major Katie Ferguson said.
Carlson said that anyone who watches the film can help and it can be as simple as just spreading the word of this disaster since there are so many people that have never heard
of it.

“It’s sad that I’m more informed of what’s going on in American Idol than I am informed about the world and horrible things such as this,” GCC photography major Ismael Perez said.

After audiences watch the documentary, he hopes that stories of the gas-victim survivors’ and the compassion that they have for each other and their community motivate viewers to try and reach out and help the cause.

“I hope the film had some influence of hope in it as well, and I think it does. I think the people there are fighting 26 years later and are all fighting with hope,” Carlson said.

More information and ways of helping out the victims of Bhopal can be found on the film’s website, www.bhopalithemovie.com, and the Facebook page

There is also a petition that can be signed to try and get the U.S. to come in and help clean up the mess at http://www.change.org/petitions/petition-president-obama-union-carbide-dow-must-clean-up-their-mess-in-bhopal-india.

A free screening of “Bhopali” will be held at The Ray Stark Family Theatre George Lucas Building, SCA 108 at USC on April 6 at 7 p.m. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Carlson.