Medical Disaster

The Unending Medical Disaster

A little after midnight of 2nd-3rd December 1984, 28 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas began leaking from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, India.

Over half a million children, men and women of Old Bhopal were surrounded by thick clouds of poison. As the gas drifted across the city, hanging close to the ground, it caused convulsions, choking, and breathlessness. In the first 72 hours 8,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands more experienced burning in the eyes, burning in chest and abdomen and vomiting, among other painful conditions.

The death toll today is 25,000, and rising. In the severely affected communities people now in their late thirties and early forties who were exposed to the toxic gases as children are dying after prolonged suffering. Many deaths are a result of cancers, and chronic diseases of the lungs, kidneys and other organs.


Suffering in Silence

Research studies conclude that Union Carbide’s gases caused lasting damage to the respiratory, ocular, reproductive, immunological, musculoskeletal systems of exposed persons, as well as their genetic material.

Research shows that children of the survivors born after the disaster are marked by Union Carbide’s poisons. Tens of thousands are left damaged by birth defects and growth and development disorders.

For ten years after the terrible events of 1984, Bhopal suffered in darkness. Medical research had been terminated. Union Carbide held scientific studies of the impacts of MIC on living systems but refused to share its findings. Lacking any clinical guidance doctors were able to provide only symptomatic treatments such as painkillers, antibiotics, steroids.

Illness dominated every home. The sound of hacking coughs filled the communities around Carbide’s rusting factory, in which 70% of families depended on manual labour. When water in local wells began to smell and taste foul, tests discovered that Union Carbide had abandoned its factory full of dangerously toxic chemicals, leaving people hit hardest by the gas to be poisoned a second time.

With tens of thousands of people too ill for demanding physical work, families struggled to meet the most basic needs, floundering under lost incomes, soaring medical bills, and care of sick and dying relatives.


The Absence of Co-ordinated Medical Help

Snaking queues faced the 5,000 or more gas-affected people seeking medical help at government hospitals each day. Inside buildings supposed to be dedicated to improving the health of the survivors, there was no medical monitoring, no database of computerised medical records, no treatment plans, few relevant experts, and little enough care.

Being mostly very poor, the survivors were often treated rudely. Doctors would refuse to touch them, leaving routine chest, pulse or abdominal checks undone.

Those able to afford private consultations fared little better. They were regularly prescribed drugs they didn’t need and which in some cases actually harmed them. Overuse of strong pharmaceuticals pummelled the bodies of those whose compromised immune systems had been likened to a form of ‘chemical AIDS’.

No one with a duty of care was listening

Noting abnormalities of the immune system, one study discovered TB in three out of every four survivors examined. The report’s authors strongly recommended non-drug strategies and physiotherapies to help rehabilitate the high numbers of people disabled by incurable lung damage. No one with a duty of care was listening.

In the absence of cures, quacks and charlatans thrived. And in their desperation to find relief from pain many survivors, already punishingly poor, spent the meagre compensation they were due many times over, before even receiving it.

In that first decade, every day three survivors on average died of their injuries.

So in Bhopal we decided that instead of waiting for help that was never going to arrive, we would start our own medical clinic and give free care to whoever needed it.