Skip to main content
Abandoned site of the Bhopal Disaster

The Bhopal Disaster: Thousands killed during the world's worst industrial tragedy

Image: The abandoned Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India |

Four decades on from the world’s worst industrial disaster, we look back at what happened in Bhopal, India in 1984 and how the toxic after-effects are still being felt to this day.

Prelude to disaster

In 1979, the Indian subsidiary of American chemicals giant Union Carbide made the fateful decision to expand a factory in the city of Bhopal. The new facility would create methyl isocyanate (MIC), an essential ingredient for the company’s pesticide product. It was also one of the most toxic and lethal substances imaginable. The move was generally hailed as a bringer of jobs and prosperity for Bhopal, but safety concerns soon reared their head.

In 1981, a worker at the plant accidentally inhaled phosgene, the chemical used in World War I’s horrific gas attacks and a core ingredient of MIC. He died after 72 painful hours and was then blamed by the management for having removed his mask in a panic. Other staff said that the real cause was the malfunctioning valve that expelled the gas and dozens more workers were later hospitalised due to phosgene leaks in 1982.

That same year, journalist Rajkumar Keswani investigated safety lapses at the plant in several articles, writing, ‘Wake up, people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano’, and ‘If you don’t understand, you all shall be wiped out.’

The night of the accident

By 1984, a lack of local demand for Union Carbide pesticide had led factory management to slash worker numbers, reduce shifts and cut corners when it came to safety procedures. This all came to a head on the night of 2nd/3rd December, during a routine clean of some pipes connected to tank number E610, which was filled with liquid MIC.

A lack of correct equipment allowed some valves to leak water into the MIC tank itself, which began a catastrophic chain reaction hastened by the presence of contaminants and rust. Worse still, a refrigeration system which was supposed to keep the tanks at safe temperatures had been shut down, as was a vent gas scrubber which was supposed to be able to neutralise toxic gas.

As the toxic liquid turned to gas and started to escape the tank, workers could smell something was off, but time quickly ran out. Tons of gas formed a dense, low cloud which drifted towards the sleeping city of Bhopal, where it started to attack the lungs of confused, terrified residents.

The death cloud

‘It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies,’ a Bhopal resident later recounted. ‘Our eyes had tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain.’

Many started to drown in their own bodily floods as the linings of their lungs broke down. Shrouded in a white, deadly smog which came through every crack and crevice, men, women and children convulsed and died in their own homes.

Others were trampled to death in the stampede as streets were suddenly filled with people fleeing in desperation. Cruelly, children were most at risk of inhaling the lethal gas since its density caused it to float close to the ground.

It’s estimated that around 3,800 people were killed right away by the onslaught of gas, with many thousands more perishing in the days that followed.

The legal fallout

There was immediate outrage directed at the company and its safety practices, with the Indian government taking action against Union Carbide on behalf of victims. The government demanded $3.3 billion in compensation but settled in 1989 for a considerably smaller payout of $470 million.

This was widely seen as inadequate, given the lasting health consequences of the disaster for survivors and their descendants. The plant itself was shut down and simply left to decay over the decades – a sprawling, rusting, toxic reminder of the horror that had unfolded that night. Since then, Union Carbide and its eventual parent company Dow have faced numerous calls to face culpable homicide charges in India.

Warren Anderson, who was the chairman of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster, was arrested when he visited India days after the gas leak. However, he was soon released on bail and fled back to the United States. Declared a fugitive from justice in India, he enjoyed a long and comfortable retirement in the prestigious Hamptons area of New York, dying in 2014 at the age of 92.

The continuing anguish

‘It would be better if there was another gas leak which could kill us all and put us all out of this misery,’ is what one Bhopal survivor told The Guardian in 2019, highlighting the numerous diseases that have blighted the area for decades. Children of gas-affected parents have suffered an array of medical problems, from birth defects to reproductive disorders.

Cancers, neurological issues, miscarriages and stillbirths have been rife, while tens of thousands of people have been unable to work due to injuries relating to the disaster and its aftermath. It’s also been revealed that, even before the gas leak, the region had been heavily contaminated with poisons from the now-abandoned plant. Tests show dangerously elevated levels of mercury and toxic chemicals like chloroform in local water systems.

With generations of people affected in untold ways, it’s unsurprising that the Bhopal gas tragedy is widely seen as the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster.