The Bhopal Marathon: Hell’s Angels

1984 Union carbide gas leak Bhopal

An account of the terrible toll of Union Carbide’s gas on the unborn children of Bhopal.

Almost half of all pregnant women exposed to Carbide’s gas spontaneously aborted. In the months that followed the city experienced what a Swedish doctor described as ‘a spate of horrific births’.

A child is born. It is past midnight inside the dank labour room at the Sultania Janada Hospital, Bhopal. Three attendants wash the tiny infant and routinely hold him up to give his mother her first glimpse. ‘Tumhara ladka paida hua hai (you have a son),’ says one nurse as she pats the child to make him cry. There is no response.

In the dim light, the skin of the child looks macerated and bluish. A senior doctor is called. He looks down at the curled figure, asks for the mother’s medical record and scrawls in the column for details of the birth: ‘Stillborn boy weighing four pounds, born to the mother’. Then he rushes out to the maternity ward to attend to another patient about to deliver.

Outside there is silence as the father looks expectantly at the white-clothed figures washing hands in the waiting room. Then comes the sound of weeping behind the green curtains of the labour room. ‘Yeh bhi gas kand ka baccha paida hua hai,’ (Here is another child of the gas tragedy) says the nurse as she shows the father the shrivelled face of his newborn. The grief of these parents was drowned in a universal horror, for hundreds of parents were to hear those terrible words, ‘Your child is another victim of the gas’.

1 in 3 Babies Survived

A epidemiological study by Daya R. Varma in September 1985 of women living within one kilometre of the plant reported a more-than fourfold increase in spontaneous abortions. Almost half the pregnant women exposed to Carbide’s gases on ‘that night’ abruptly aborted. Still births too were significantly high.

The study showed that out of 865 who came to term, 43% delivered stillborn babies. Of 486 live births 14% died in the first 30 days. Only 1 in 3 children born to women pregnant on the night of the gas survived. Many were born deformed.

Senior Doctors Silenced

The horrifying statistics and the monstrous births now taking place were hushed up by panicky officials. Sunday’s reporter Ritu Sarin found deep unwillingness among officials and senior doctors to speak about what was happening. Junior staff were more forthcoming. She wrote:
‘Travelling in the ambulance which carries blood samples and placentae and ailing children to the Hamidia hospital we hear that four or five children die every day at Sultana Janana Hospital alone with more than ten placentae being sent for experiments to the Gandhi Medical College. There are sorry tales of mothers who have lost their offspring or who are bringing up deformed infants, shocking accounts given by junior hospital staff, midwives and nurses who insist they have never seen any birth-and-death cycle like this before.’

You can read the complete Bhopal Marathon publication online here 

Girl with candle Bhopal

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