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We have produced a chemical system antagonistic to life which is essentially overwhelming it. Barry Commoner PEOPLE IN Texas City still talk about the April 16, 1947, chemical explosions that killed nearly 500 people, injured 4,000 and left 115 missing. Mushroom clouds of smoke erased the sun that day, and the New York Times reported that “steel fragments were hurled for four and five miles in every direction, slashing down people walking in the street and sitting in cars.” The force hurled a barge 200 feet into the air and rocked buildings 100 miles away. That was the most spectacular chemical disaster in U.S. history, and the most lethal one.. Explosions, fires, evacuations, death we tend to remember the more dramatic chemical mishaps, the ones like Bhopal, Love Canal, Texas City. But in The Bhopal Syndrome, a study of chemical manufacturing in the Third World and the United States, author David Weir suggests that we take more notice of the “slowmotion Bhopals,” the chemical plants where worker and community safety are sacrificed on a day-to-day basis for higher production levels and corporate profits. Weir, who directs the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco and also wrote Circle of Poison \(Institute for Food and Developproliferation of chemical plants worldwide since World War II, and the links between power, money, and pesticides. Chemical companies have chosen to build many of their plants in Third World countries where safety standards often do not exist or are not enforced and where high unemployment creates a cheap and plentiful labor pool. Pointing to lack of, regulation, and problems such as unlabeled containers, illiterate workers, chronic misuse, and Dana Loy works for the Toxic Waste Project of the Texas Center for Rural Studies in Austin. hungry people eating rat poison, Weir questions whether chemical production, and pesticide production especially, is an appropriate technology for Third World countries. Throughout the world, Weir says, “technology intended to help humankind appears to have gone berserk, out of control, beyond the point where we could hope to reduce the threat THE BHOPAL SYNDROME By David Weir International Organization of Consumers Unions, Penang, Malaysia, 1986 117 pages, $6.00 to manageable proportions.” The chemical industry spends millions to promote an image of humanistic and environmental concern, and has developed a range of smooth and almost convincing phrases. Safest industry in the nation. Protecting the air, land, and water we all share. Better living through chemistry. But what do companies like Monsanto, Kerr-McGee, Du Pont, and Union Carbide say about their Third World marketing of Parathion \(developed by Nazi scientists for chemicaused 80 percent of Central America’s more than 14,000 pesticide poisonings between 1972 and 1975? What do they say about the 1984 incident in Bhopal, where in the middle of the night a yellowish fog of methyl isocyanate descended on the people of that city, killing between 2,000 and 5,000 and injuring 200,000, at least 20,000 of them seriously? They don’t want to talk about it. They turn it over to their lawyers. Union Carbide is struggling with liability problems resulting from the Bhopal tragedy, and thousands of afflicted Indians will never be properly compensated for their suffering. But while executives and legal representatives defend the company with cool and professional reasoning, those responsible for the decisions leading to the disaster may find it hard to sleep at night. According to Weir’s investigation, it could have been prevented. Journalist Raj Kumar Keswani in 1982 published three reports on the plant’s inadequate safety standards and the threat it represented to the local people. During the same year, a safety team from Union Carbide’s U.S. headquarters reported “serious potential for sizeable releases of toxic material” at the Bhopal operation. The plant’s method of producing methyl isocyanate, an ingredient in Union Carbide’s pesticide Sevin, was known to be perilous; alternative processes existed for making Sevin without the deadly chemical, but were more expensive and created larger volumes of troublesome waste materials. Weir describes how the Bhopal plant is located in a densely populated, lowincome area, and recounts the accident’s grim aftermath as “hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands” of people began arriving at local hospitals and clinics. “Nobody counted as the bodies were heaped into piles and cremated, according to Hindu tradition, or wrapped in shrouds and buried, according to Moslem tradition. . . . Many remained unidentified since entire families had vanished.” He explains the double standard between the operation of transnational corporations in First and Third World countries, and observes an “appalling state of ignorance” about toxic chemicals worldwide. That ignorance extends into the United States, where about 75 percent of the population lives in proximity to a chemical plant, according to Weir, and where marketing and advertising perpetuate a demand for the items that keeps the production of dangerous chemicals high. “Even the best regulation inside factories will fail to protect people,” Weir says, “if consumers continue to use chemical products and governments continue to regulate them as if there are no longterm consequences.” But to acknowledge these consequences and to rethink our dependence on chemical products would be to literally change our way of life; people may prefer facing the. dangers of chemical production to substantially altering their life styles and buying habits. Until a shift in values is reached, we have to depend on governmental regulation to protect ourselves and Third World people from the chemical industry with its powerful lobbyists and political clout. Industry often finds it cheaper to influence legislation and pay fines than to improve its safety standards, although some companies in the U.S. have begun public relations efforts to improve community awareness of the hazards of living near chemical plants. Chemical companies in Texas are pro The Message of Bhopal By . Dana Loy 20 MARCH 20, 1987