Twenty-five years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, one of the biggest industrial disasters in history, the country’s pollution watchdog has found huge quantities of chemicals in underground water and soil in a 2.4-km radius of the Union Carbide factory.
During a study of 390 tonnes of toxins abandoned in the now-closed factory, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) discovered high levels of chloroform and benzene in underground water, mostly near residential colonies. It is the first time a government body has confirmed allegations of contamination around the site.
The contaminants can cause headache and nausea. Prolonged exposure can lead to respiratory distress and even coma.
“In some cases, the toxins were found to be several hundred times more than the permissible limits in drinking water,” said the report. The level of mercury in water, for instance, was 7995 parts per million (ppm). World Health Organisation standards prescribe that mercury in water should not be more than 0.1 ppm.
“The contamination is abnormally high,” said CPCB chairperson S.P. Gautam. “Toxins from chemicals in the factory would’ve seeped into the ground and reached the water table.”
Dow Chemicals representatives in India weren’t available for comment despite repeated attempts.
The company that bought Union Carbide 9 years ago denies culpability for the disaster.
Government statistics say 3,787 people died of the gas leakage from the Union Carbide factory in December 3, 1984. NGOs put the toll at 15,000. Around five lakh people were exposed to lethal methyl-isocyanate gas, leading to lifelong deformities.
Sunita Narain, director, CSE, said: “The study shows that the site is highly contaminated. The focus of the government is to dispose of the stored waste and ignore the site's contamination. This will not solve the environmental problems from emanating from the UCIL factory.”
In 2004, activist Alok Pratap Mehta filed a PIL in the Madhya Pradesh HC seeking to hold Dow Chemicals responsible for the pollution and the clean up.
On March 30, 2005, however, the court asked the Centre to ensure that the clean up job was done.