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Environmental Impact

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The Bhopal gas leak caused extensive damage to the environment surrounding the Union Carbide factory. The impacts were both immediate and long-term. Due to improper clean up in the area, Bhopal residents are still affected by the negative consequences of the gas leak.

Immediate Effects

In the days following the gas leak, the leaves on the trees near the factory yellowed and fell off the branches. Around 2,000 animals, mostly livestock such as goats and buffalo, were killed by the gas leak. The Indian government prohibited fishing in the area for fear that the rivers and lakes were polluted. The food supply in Bhopal became scarce due to suppliers' fears of food safety. Nearby crop growth was also affected by the leak. According to authorities, 36 wards in the region were considered to be “gas affected.” These 36 wards contained a population of some 520,000 people.

Long-Term Effects

Since the Bhopal gas leak, there have been persistent environmental problems due to improper clean up. Past attempts to decontaminate the environment in and around Bhopal were incomplete. The clean up responsibilities shifted from Union Carbide Industries to the Madhya Pradesh government in 1998. Since this time, money and accountability for the leak have become a problem. As a result, drinking water contamination has become a major issue.

Water Contamination

Bhopal Water Sample Collection Map
(click thumbnail image to view full map)
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Bhopal's underground water supply is polluted with toxic chemicals such as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. The contamination is not only due to the Bhopal gas leak, but also to Union Carbide's practices prior to the leak. The improper treatment of chemicals has contributed to the water pollution. As a result of the contamination, the water in Bhopal is unsafe for drinking.

Greenpeace Research Laboratories conducted water sample testing in 1999 and determined the levels of contaminants in Bhopal's water supply. This map shows the sites chosen for testing (red circles). The wind in this area blows to the North and to the East, which is why the particular sites were chosen. Greenpeace believed these areas would have the highest contamination levels from chemicals being carried by the wind.

Greenpeace Research Laboratories found volatile organic compounds in Bhopal's drinking water supply. The level of trichloroethene was 50 times higher than the EPA safety limits. Trichloroethene can impair fetal development. The list of volatile organic compounds found included:

  • Chlorinated benzenes
  • Chlorinated ethenes
  • Chloroform
  • Carbon tetrachloride
  • Trichloroethene

In addition to VOC's, Greenpeace Research Laboratories also found elevated levels of heavy metals in the water. The heavy metals detected included:

  • Mercury
  • Chromium
  • Copper
  • Nickel
  • Lead

Heavy metals bioaccumulate in both aquatic and terrestrial organisms and are toxic to humans. One water sample found mercury to be 12% of the overall weight of the sample.

Other chemicals found in the water were toxic organochlorides such as:

  • Chlorinated ethanes
  • Chlorinated hexanes
  • DDT
  • Hexachlorobutadiene

Hexachlorobutadiene is a potent kidney toxin and is under review as a possible human carcinogen.

These chemicals persist in the drinking water supply because the water was never fully decontaminated. Although the water is labeled unfit for drinking, Bhopal residents still consume the contaminated water.

Soil Contamination

In addition to water testing, Greenpeace Research Laboratories also performed soil testing to check for contamination. They tested several sites near the Union Carbide plant. Greenpeace found the metal levels in the soil similar to uncontaminated soil. The only metal with high concentrations was copper, which can naturally vary in nature and was unlikely due to the gas leak. The researchers concluded that the activities at the Union Carbide plant including the gas leak did not contaminate the surrounding soil.

Lasting Impact

Activist groups have urged Dow Chemicals (the current owner of the Union Carbide plant) to clean up the environment surrounding Bhopal. These groups have urged the local government to request that Dow Chemicals pay for the clean up. Although a legal settlement resulted in the Madhya Pradesh government having jurisdiction over the clean up, activist groups believe Dow Chemicals must still be held accountable. Due to a lack of money and no one taking responsibility, the efforts to clean up the environment came to a halt. The impact of this decision is that until the drinking water is decontaminated, the residents of Bhopal will continue to be exposed to the toxic chemicals.


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