Monday, October 11, 2010

Ironic Ads: Union Carbide

(Click on pic to enlarge).

With the Commonwealth Games in Delhi on in full swing, it is appropriate to pause for a moment and take a look back at another moment in history concerning India and technology.

The above advertisement, dating from 1962, shows a hand pouring chemicals into the air and soil of India, above the words “…working with Indian engineers and technicians, Union Carbide recently made available its vast scientific resources to help build a major chemicals and plastics plant near Bombay. Throughout the free world, Union Carbide has been actively engaged in building plants for the manufacture of chemicals, plastics, carbons, gases and metals.”

In 1984 the industrial plant of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation, leaked toxic Methyl Isocvante (MIC) gas and other chemicals. Most of the safety systems were not functioning, many valves and lines were in poor condition, workers had not been instructed in proper handling or maintenance procedures and the tank which leaked the toxic gas contained 42 tons of MIC, much more than safety rules allowed. It is estimated that 20,000 have died since the accident from gas-related diseases. Another 100,000 to 200,000 people are estimated to have permanent injuries. Doctors and hospitals were not informed of proper treatment methods for MIC gas inhalation and instructed by plant officials to simply give cough medicine and eye drops to their patients. The officials also issued public releases that the siruation was safe, that poultry could be eaten but that fish should be avoided.  In 1989, a settlement was reached under which UCC agreed to pay US$470 million (the insurance sum, plus interest) in a full and final settlement of its civil and criminal liability.

The site remains contaminated, not because of the toxic gas leak but because of the manner of processing chemicals at the plant and the procedures in disposing of pollutants. The area around the plant was used as a dumping ground area for hazardous chemicals. Between 1969 and 1977, all effluents were dumped in an open pit, where they were neutralised with hydrochloric acid. The effluents then went to two evaporation ponds. In the rainy seasons, the effluents used to overflow. It is also said that large quantities of chemicals are buried in the ground.

By 1982 tubewells in the vicinity of the UCC factory had to be abandoned. In 1991 the municipal authorities declared water from over 100 tubewells to be unfit for drinking. In 2002, an inquiry found a number of toxins, including mercury, lead, 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene dichloromethane and choloroform, in nursing women's breast milk. In 2009, a day before the 25th anniversary of the disaster, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi based pollution monitoring lab, released latest tests from a study showing that groundwater in areas even three km from the factory up to 38.6 times more pesticides than Indian standards. That same year the BBC took a water sample from a frequently used hand pump, located just north of the plant. The sample, tested in UK, was found to contain 1000 times the World Health Organisation's recommended maximum amount of carbon tetrachloride, a carcinogenic toxin. Both the soil and the ground water have been contaminated due to toxins leaking from the factory site.


  1. A soil and water sample was taken from Roselle Bay during the construction of the Anzac Bridge by the RTA. Unacceptable levels of mercury, cadmium and zinc were discovered. Union Carbide never came back to decontaminate our harbour or foreshore after they abandon their Roselle site in the 1980's. Union Carbide never decontaminated the Indian site either nor were the people compensated. Do we draw a parallel that we are also treated as a third world nation.

  2. Definitely this accentuates the lack of political will from our regulators as they were not the only polluters, only one of many that were given permission to discard waste, as was commonly done pre and post war.

  3. No regulators before 1980

  4. Economically speaking while an externality is not costed that is the disposal of waste, the externality will be exploited.