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Chemical companies – profit before safety:

World’s worst industrial disaster

(December 1984)

From Militant, No 729, 14 December 1984, p. 11.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE comments of rescue workers in Bhopal, India, after the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster tell their own horrific take:

“Every house we entered was crammed with bodies. The carnage was such that it appeared that a nuclear bomb had dropped onto the city.”

Government sources tentatively claim that 2,000 people were killed, 20,000 injured and 200,000 affected by a deadly cocktail of cyanide and phosgene gases, released after storage tanks at a pesticide plant exploded and turned much of the city into one vast gas chamber.

The pesticide company – the giant US-owned Union Carbide – sought to minimise the hazards by claiming that the gasses can be neutralised by moisture in the air and that they pose no long-term effects. But what is the truth? And more specifically, what is the safety record of Union Carbide?

It has long been known that trace amounts of methyl isocyanate one of the escaped gasses – causes voluminous emissions from the eyes and irritation to the skin and internal organs. Long-term exposure to infinitesimal quantities has been known to cause infertility amongst women and cancer.

When inhaled in larger amounts it can produce a rapid accumulation of fluid in the lungs – causing drowning. The gas can also remove essential iron from the blood stream leading to malfunction of organs and death.

It is precisely because of the stringent medical tests demanded by the US Environmental Protection Agency that companies like Union Carbide decide to operate in other countries. Once known as ‘public enemy number 1’, by environmental groups, Union Carbide have established a notorious record of health and safety nationally and internationally. It once held the dubious distinction in the 1960s of operating the ‘smokiest factory in the world’ in its ‘Ever Ready’ battery factory in Virginia.

Third World victims

Another factory in Indonesia was found to be emitting huge concentrations of carbon black, contaminated with poisonous mercury. Of the 750 workforce a staggering 402 employees were found to be suffering from some kind of kidney disease.

But it has been their operations in the pesticide industry which have produced the biggest controversy and also yielded massive profits. The company, in recent years have exported to developing countries huge amounts of pesticides and herbicides, which are banned or severely restricted as a health hazard in the USA.

This is usually done in conjunction with new seed strains and fertilizers as part of a “Green Revolution” package – thereby creating a new cycle of dependency and debt. It is estimated that normally 140 lbs of hazardous pesticides are exported to these countries each year.

Capitalist priorities

In 1980 Union Carbide sold in Latin America alone £645 million worth of pesticides making an operating profit of $122m. This is just one of the 19 multinational corporations that dominate the market in that region. Moreover, if their combined operations in other products and industries are examined, then the health hazards are enormously magnified.

The callous behaviour of the monopolies can be demonstrated by recent examples of a West German company dismantling its entire asbestos textile factory near Hamburg and transferring it to a site near Cape Town in South Africa. The Swiss Company CIBA-GEIGY was forced to admit that it sprayed Egyptian children deliberately with insecticide to test the children for toxic levels and to establish a link with cancer.

The trade union movement of these countries must be satisfied that the processes for the manufacture of chemicals are safe for workers, for the surrounding community and for the environment as a whole. Catastrophes like the one in Bhopal, environmental pollution and the wholesale poisoning of communities are inevitable because of the inherent drive by big business enterprises for maximum profits, where operations and conditions are governed by the anarchy of the mark and competition.

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