Long before Union Carbide’s toxic gas, methyl-isocyanate (MIC), claimed tens of thousands of lives in Bhopal, it was the subject of more than a dozen medical studies in the United States. What these studies revealed about the short- and longterm medical effects of MIC exposure we do not know because Union Carbide and its owner Dow Chemical have refused to share them with the people of Bhopal.
What we do know, from experience, is that the gas caused almost half of all pregnant women who inhaled it to spontaneously to abort. Aziza’s story tells how as she fled the gas, a young woman lost the child she was carrying, as her womb just opened right there in the street.
Within weeks of the disaster, doctors were aware that dozens of children were being born dead, sometimes not even recognizably human. See A Child is Born, for an account of the fear that gripped families in the early months.
In March 1985, a column of frightened mothers-to-be wound towards a government hospital with bottles containing urine samples. The women asked for the samples to be tested to check whether their babies could be born damaged, and to ask for sodium thiosulphate injections to rid their bodies of toxins inhaled on ‘that night’.
Instead of injections, tests, medical advice and kindness they were driven away by police with sticks. Ironically, even as these scared women were being chased away, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was carrying out a double-blind clinical trial to test the efficacy of sodium thiosulphate injections as a detoxificant for the gas-exposed.
And while the fears of mothers-to-be were all too soon realised in what one Swedish doctor described as ‘a spate of horrific births’, the ICMR results took 22 years to be published; they revealed – a whole generation too late – that the injections could indeed have saved tens of thousands of lives.
The disaster has faded in the world’s memory, but in Bhopal the damaged births are on the rise.
The very same factory that spewed out poison gas has been leaking deadly chemicals into the drinking water of some 50,000 people. In affected communities, there are epidemics of kidney disease, cancer and hundreds of damaged children.