The Ugly Side of Industrial Chemicals
IT WAS just after midnight on a cool December evening in 1984 that the worst industrial accident in history happened. A world away from the Republic of India, few people were familiar with the name Bhopal, an industrial city with a population of more than 800,000, located almost at the center of the country. Its sleeping residents were unaware of the death-dealing events developing a stone’s throw away.
At the U.S. Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, a storage tank holding 45 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a deadly chemical used in making pesticides, began building up dangerously high pressure. Suddenly, from a malfunctioning valve, a cloud of poisonous gas began spreading death and agony over the quiet city. It snuffed out the lives of more than 2,500 men, women, and children. It maimed more than a hundred thousand others.
The death of thousands of animals—water buffalo, cattle, and dogs—caused the countryside to be littered with dead bodies that clogged the roads and city streets. Bhopal became a giant makeshift crematory, burning the dead around the clock. Seventy funeral pyres, with bodies stacked 25 high, consumed the dead in their flames. Others were buried in hurriedly dug mass graves—scores of bodies at a time.
Later another catastrophe hit Europe and was called “Bhopal on the Rhine.” A chemical spill from an industrial plant above Basel, Switzerland, dumped 40 tons of poisonous waste into the Rhine. It killed hundreds of thousands of fish and eels as it “drifted downstream along the German-French border, into the Rhineland and then through the Netherlands to the North Sea.” One newspaper editorialized: “The Swiss used to be considered clean, their industry safe, and that included the chemical industry. That is all past now.”
The residents of Bhopal and communities along the Rhine River had become the victims of a technological age that boasts the compounding of more than 66,000 chemical concoctions. Many are formulated to make life easier for man, yet, ironically, a vast number are highly toxic and can cause fatal and devastating side effects, both to humans and to the entire biological system. One expert classified these chemicals as “biocides.”
Many are the chemicals with long names that few people can pronounce and that for convenience bear letters such as PCB, DDT, PCDD, PCDF, TCDD. This alphabet soup of toxic chemicals is a deadly hazard both to humans and to earth’s resources on which man must rely to live. “Thousands upon thousands of releases of toxic substances into the environment” occur each year, said a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Such releases pose a threat to the quality of air, surface water, and underground drinking supplies, and poison the soil for decades to come.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the United States alone, 1.5 trillion gallons of hazardous chemical wastes find their way into the underground water systems each year.a Knowing that just one gallon of solvent will contaminate 20 million gallons of groundwater to exceed safe levels, it is staggering to compute what catastrophic damage 1.5 trillion gallons of poisonous chemicals are doing.
Because of hazardous chemicals and wastes and the careless dumping of them, rivers and streams are being polluted. Fish are dying. As the rivers and streams enter the oceans, the death-dealing chemicals pour with them, and in some places where ocean life was once plentiful, today, according to famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, fish can no longer be found.
Bird and animal life is also threatened by the contamination. Even wildlife sanctuaries prove to be no haven. “Ten national wildlife refuges are contaminated by toxic chemicals and another 74 may be in danger. . . . Agricultural runoff containing selenium and other chemicals has killed large numbers of waterfowl in the refuge,” reported The New York Times of February 4, 1986.
World experts do not paint a promising picture for the future. The rapid diminishment of earth’s resources does not end with the loss of soil and the pollution of air and water. What about earth’s great tropical rain forests that for millenniums have raised their leafy arms hundreds of feet into the air? Are these too in danger of going the way of other resources that are diminishing before our eyes? Whether we realize it or not, our lives are affected by these luxuriant handiworks of Jehovah, as the next article will show.
a 1 gal = 3.8 L.