Image: Local activists attend a demonstration to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster in Bhopal
Reinhard Krause  /  Reuters
Local activists attend a demonstration to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster in Bhopal, India on Thursday.
updated 12/2/2009 9:00:34 PM ET 2009-12-03T02:00:34

Hazra Bi wishes she could forget. But her damaged family is a living reminder of that December night 25 years ago when lethal gas leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, in the worst industrial disaster the world has ever seen.

The gas that swept through her poor neighborhood left her nearly blind in one eye, menopausal at 36, with searing headaches and breathlessness. It left her son, then 4, unable to control his bladder and suffering debilitating panic attacks. And two years ago it gave her a granddaughter born severely underweight, her legs like twigs, who still cannot walk or talk.

The Bhopal industrial disaster killed about 4,000 people in the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984. A few days later the death toll had doubled. Over the next few years, the lingering effects of the poison nearly doubled the toll again, to about 15,000, according to government estimates. Local activists say the real numbers are almost twice that.

A quarter-century later, thousands like Bi are still grappling with the effects of exposure to the deadly gas as it winds its way through generations not even born when the disaster struck. Rights groups say toxic waste from the plant still contaminates the soil and groundwater in nearby neighborhoods.

Still birth defects
"We're still finding children as young as 2 months old being born with birth defects," says Satinath Sarangi, director of the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, which offers free health care for those exposed to gas or polluted water.

According to the government, at least 500,000 people were affected by the gas leak, and activists like Sarangi say that thousands of children, born to parents directly exposed to the gas leak or poisoned by the contaminated water, are suffering from cleft lips, missing palates, twisted limbs.

Varying degrees of brain damage are being found, as are chaotic menstrual cycles, they said. Even more common are all sorts of skin, vision and breathing disorders.

Government officials say there is no current contamination and dismiss assertions that the birth defects are related to the disaster. Babulal Gaur, the state minister for Gas Relief and Rehabilitation, says the diseases plaguing the children are only a consequence of living in poor slums.

Video: Poison gas leak kills thousands in Bhopal, India American chemical company Union Carbide Corp. has said that the accident — which took place when water entered the sealed tank containing the highly reactive MIC — was an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee, never identified, and not lax safety standards or faulty plant design, as claimed by some activists.

$470 million settlement
Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical Co. in 2001. Dow says the legal case was resolved in 1989, when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for $470 million, and that all responsibility for the factory now rests with the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, of which Bhopal is the capital.

Tomm F. Sprick, a spokesman for Union Carbide gave The Associated Press a statement saying "the groundwater issue at the Bhopal site is best addressed by the state government of Madhya Pradesh, which owns the site and is responsible for clean up activities," and that the company gave the Indian government all the toxicity information about the chemicals involved in the manufacture of MIC.

It's a responsibility that the state government accepts.

"Dow Chemical does not own that site. We do," says Gaur, the minister.

Through the twisting, dirt-filled alleys of the slums that bore the brunt of the gas leak, it's impossible to walk past more than a dozen homes without finding at least one young child with visible physical abnormalities.

Dressed in a faded blue sweater and bright red pants, Hazra Bi's granddaughter, Taheba, drags herself across the floor as she plays with a piece of silver foil.

"A 2-year-old walks, talks, responds to its name, but this is the fate of the third generation of Bhopal," Hazra Bi says, as she watches over the child.

Looks half her age
Elsewhere in the city, 26-year-old Rizwana Bi sits on a plastic mat minding her 8-year-old daughter Menaz, who looks half her age and whose twisted body is strapped into a special chair with a wooden back to support her spine.

Rizwana and her husband (who are unrelated to Hazra) both were exposed to the gas as children, and have two sons, both of whom have severe speech defects and poor mental development.

She is one of dozens of parents who bring their children to a special school and clinic run by the Chingari Trust, a nonprofit organization funded in large part by the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize awarded in 2004 to Bhopal activists and survivors Rashida Bee and her friend and neighbor, Champa Devi Shukla.

Chingari, which means "spark" in Hindi, says it has identified hundreds of children with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to speech defects who were born to parents exposed to the gas or the contaminated water.

Hundreds of tons of toxic material from the factory still sit in a warehouse on the premises, but Gaur says there is no contamination of either the soil or water.

The tragedy of Bhopal's children is compounded by the lack of any detailed research into the long term health implications of exposure to the gas.

Studies never published
In 1985 the Indian Council of Medical Research — the top government-funded body conducting medical investigations — initiated two dozen studies into the likely biomedical impact of MIC exposure. Most of those studies were never published, say doctors involved in the research.

"We were told that studies could not be published because of some legal issues, but to date those studies have not been published," said Dr. N.R. Bhandari, a pediatrician who was the main investigator in five studies.

According to V.M. Katoch, the New Delhi-based head of the medical council, most of the main findings of the investigations were published and "the individual studies will not merit a publication anyway."

The council is open to funding new studies in Bhopal, Katoch said, but added that in the last 10 months they have received only two project proposals.

For now, people like Hazra Bi remain caught between despair and hope.

"For us nothing changes. People come and write about us and then they go away. We stay here and our problems stay here," she said. "But we will go on fighting."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Bhopal, 25 years later

loading photos...
  1. A guard stands in front of the Union Carbide chemical plant on Dec. 3, 1984, in Bhopal, India. The plant leaked poisonous methyl isocyanate gas into the air, killing thousands of people instantly. Thousands more are said to have since died or been injured as a result of the toxic cloud, although the exact death toll remains unclear.

    Some 25 years after the world's deadliest industrial disaster, the drinking water supply for several communities in the area remains contaminated, according to a report by an advocacy group and a medical clinic. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    A dead child is partially buried Dec. 3, 1984, in Bhopal - one of at least 3,000 people killed immediately by the chemical leak. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A woman grieves for her lost loved one on the day of the disaster. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A man holds a sick child Dec. 3, 1984, in Bhopal. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A man carries the body of a victim of the Bhopal tragedy on Dec. 4, 1984. (Bedi / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blinded victims sit in the street and wait to be treated in Bhopal on Dec. 4, 1984. Indian officials have anounced plans to reopen the site of the diaster to the public to coincide with the 25th anniversary. (Bedi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Bodies of victims are seen Dec. 5, 1984, in Bhopal. (Sandro Tucci / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Mother Teresa comforts a young victim of the Bhopal tragedy on Dec. 11, 1984. (Pablo Bartholomew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Children play near the boundary wall of the Union Carbide plant on Nov. 28, 2009. (Harish Tyagi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Children play in front of the defunct Union Carbide factory on Nov. 18, 2009. (Raveendran / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Discarded bottles of chemicals lay on the floor in a building at the site of the former Union Carbide factory on Nov. 28, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Children gather greenery for their goat ahead of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, in front of the shuttered Union Carbide factory on Nov. 27, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Children play cricket on a foggy morning Nov. 18, 2009, inside the compound of the Union Carbide plant. (Raveendran / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. In this Nov. 20, 2009, photo, a physiotherapist holds the leg of a 7-year-old child at a clinic run by a nongovernmental organization to cater to victims of the Bhopal tragedy. A quarter century after the disaster, many of those who were exposed to the chemicals have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. (Saurabh Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Khushi Verma, right, and Apeksha Malviya are given physiotherapy on Nov. 20, 2009, at a nongovernmental organization in Bhopal. (Saurabh Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Eleven-year-old Salu Raikwar, who was born with six fingers on both hands, holds a ball made from waste paper and a plastic bag in a slum area next to the closed Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal on Nov. 30, 2009. (Reinhard Krause / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Women fill containers with clean water shipped in to replace the contaminated local water supply in Bhopal, on Nov. 28, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A January 2007 close-up of the eyes of a man who lives in the settlement located next to the former Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Many people in the area suffer serious eye and lung problems. (Andy Spyra / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Fifteen-year-old Sachin Kumar crawls after playing a game of cricket with his friends in a slum near the site of the deserted Union Carbide factory on Nov. 27, 2009. (Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Activists and victims of the Bhopal gas disaster participate in a torch procession toward the abandoned Union Carbide factory on Dec. 2, 2009, the eve of 25th anniversary of the disaster. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Activists and victims shout slogans during the torch rally to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. (Reinhard Krause / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Survivors and mourners gather around a memorial statue of a mother and child erected outside the old Union Carbide factory in Bhopal on Dec. 2, 2009 in memory of poison gas victims who perished in the world's worst industrial accident 25 years ago. (Indranil Mukherjee / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Victims and activists surround a burning effigy of Warren Anderson, former CEO of Union Carbide, during a protest march to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 3, 2009. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Hundreds of people marched through Bhopal to mark the 25th anniversary of the world's worst industrial disaster on Dec. 3, 2009 and demand the cleanup of toxic chemicals they say still contaminate the Indian city's soil and water. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments