The Enduring Impact of the Bhopal Disaster Across Generations


Article by: Harper Mason, on 08 July 2023, at 01:35 am PDT

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego have shed light on the lasting repercussions of the catastrophic 1984 Bhopal disaster, revealing its profound intergenerational impact on the victims.

The study highlights a wide range of long-term and chronic health effects experienced by hundreds of thousands of survivors, including respiratory, neurological, musculoskeletal, and endocrine problems. However, the researchers suggest that these observed impacts might just be the tip of the iceberg. The toxic methyl isocyanate not only contaminated groundwater but also affected the reproductive health of exposed women, raising concerns that future generations, despite not directly encountering the deadly gas, may still suffer adverse health and social consequences stemming from the Bhopal disaster.

Previous research has already demonstrated that exposed women and their female offspring continue to face menstrual abnormalities and premature menopause decades after the disaster. Furthermore, methyl isocyanate has been found to damage chromosomes, as early clinical studies detected signs of increased chromosomal aberrations.

The recent study uncovers a broader geographical impact of the disaster than previously known. Contrary to earlier assumptions by public health officials and researchers, the research indicates that people within a radius of approximately 100km from the site were affected, expanding the affected area well beyond the initial 4.5km radius.

Using data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4 and the 1999 Indian Socio-economic Survey, the researchers delved into the long-term, intergenerational consequences of the disaster. They discovered that women who were pregnant at the time of the tragedy were more likely to give birth to sons with disabilities that hindered their employment prospects 15 years later. Additionally, these children faced higher rates of cancer and lower educational attainment even after three decades. The authors emphasize that these findings underscore the enduring social costs resulting from the disaster, extending far beyond immediate mortality and morbidity.

The study reveals a stark reality: men born in 1985 and currently residing within 100km of Bhopal face an eightfold higher risk of cancer compared to other birth cohorts. Among this group, those who have never relocated since the disaster face a staggering 27-fold higher risk. Migration in the affected area has been relatively low, with approximately 91% of the population remaining in the same vicinity after 1984.

Epidemiologist Swarup Sarkar, formerly with the World Health Organization and now a researcher at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, commends the study for its compelling evidence. He asserts that the impacts of the disaster extend beyond immediate health consequences, leading to disabilities with subsequent educational and employment effects. Sarkar emphasizes the need for further investigations into the reasons behind the geographic spread, urging the involvement of the affected community in shaping remedial policies.

Rashida Bee, president of a Bhopal victim's organization, welcomes the study as validation of the survivors' claims regarding the magnitude and long-term ramifications of the disaster. She demands that Union Carbide and Dow Chemical, the current owner of Union Carbide, assume responsibility for compensating the health damage suffered by the generation born to the survivors in the aftermath of the tragedy.

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