Permanent scars of the Bhopal catastrophe

Permanent scars of the Bhopal catastrophe – research on survivors

Many of the survivors of the disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India on Dec. 3, 1984 will suffer for the rest of their lives, a U.S. government study suggests. The catastrophe occurred after water was accidentally mixed with a large tankful of methyl isocyanate, creating a toxic cloud that drifted over teeming Bhopal shantytowns near by. Some 2,500 people died immediately, and thousands more became seriously ill.

To gauge the fate of those survivors, researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C. exposed rats and mice for two hours to various doses of methyl isocyanate supplied by Union Carbide and then observed the animals for 91 days. During the exposure, the animals ”became restless, breathing appeared shallow, and eyes were kept closed,” according to the institute’s report. Many of the rats and mice died within four days, and a second, smaller death wave swept over the population after eight days. The invariable cause of death: respiratory damage–to the nasal cavity, larynx, trachea, and/or bronchioles.

The tide of deaths gradually slowed, but the surviving rodents faced a lifetime of suffering. Scars, or fibrotic lesions, appeared in the small passageways of the lungs, plugging the airways and making breathing difficult.

In mice or men, these scars will probably never go away. The fate of the rodents suggests that, like old coal miners or those gassed in World War I, the Bhopal survivors will be pulmonary invalids, susceptible to tuberculosis, emphysema, pneumonia, and bronchitis, and unable to do much exercise, says Ernest McConnell, the director of the study.

Although it’s of scant comfort, while methyl isocyanate ravaged the rodents’ respiratory systems, it didn’t affect their immune or reproductive systems. Apparently, the chemical reacted so fully with the first tissues it encountered– those in the breathing passages–that none was left to poison other organs.

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