4 Environmental Health Lessons Learned From the Bhopal Disaster

Gary Cohen
December 3, 2014
Huffington Post

Photograph by Bhopal Medical Appeal

The Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, India is an oasis of healing. Combining Western and traditional healing philosophies, the clinic empowers people to take responsibility for their own health. Clinic staff and patients maintain a healing garden where patients learn about the medicinal qualities of plants and then take home a plant to remedy some of their health problems. Satinath Sarangi, the clinic's director, says that "people take care of the plants and the plants take care of them."
All this, while sitting a quarter mile from the site of one of history's worst industrial disasters.
Just a short distance away is the rotting hulk of the Union Carbide pesticide factory. Thirty years ago the factory exploded, sending a poisonous cloud across a city of one million people as they slept in their beds. In one night of terror, thousands died and half a million people were injured.
I have travelled to Bhopal more than a dozen times since that day 30 years ago. First to work with community members to establish the healing clinic and later as part of a global movement to exact justice and relief from those responsible and ultimately perhaps draw some larger benefit out of the pain and suffering that so many Bhopalis still endure.
Justice has proved elusive to date. But anniversaries are an opportunity to look back on the journey and see what progress has been achieved, what lessons have been applied and where history seems poised, even determined, to repeat itself. And so, what have we learned?
1. Chemicals can permanently damage children in the womb and in early childhood. 

When the Bhopal disaster happened, our understanding of early-life chemical exposure was primitive at best. This is one reason the compensation awarded to survivors was so paltry (around $500 for permanent injury). The Indian Supreme Court judges had no idea those chemicals would lead to a cascade of negative health effects across multiple generations.
Now we know that very small toxic exposures in the first thousands days of childhood development can contribute to stunted brain development in children, including loss of IQ points, learning disabilities, and other neurological damage.