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Faculty of Engineering

Department of Chemical Engineering

Cape Town Campus

Bhopal Incident
Chemical Engineering Process Design 4
Lecturer: Ademola Rabiu

Student Name:
Student Number:
Date Submitted:

Loreen Grobbelaar
24 February 2015

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Bhopal Disaster
The worlds worst industrial disaster occurred on the night of December 2, 1984, when a chemical
spill on a pesticide plant in central India in the city of Bhopal caused the death of thousands of
people. The chemical company responsible for the spill of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas belonged to
Union Carbide, established in 1934 (Union Carbide, 2014).

Cause of the Bhopal disaster

The refrigeration system designed and implemented to cool liquid MIC stored in three separate
storage tanks were shut down in June 1984 to save money while the refrigerant, Freon, was shipped
to other plants. Water leaked into one of the three storage tanks which contained 40 tons of MIC
causing a runaway exothermic reaction presented below:

Some say water was deliberately added to the MIC in the 40 ton storage tank. As a result of
increasing temperature, pressure in the tank also increased, causing a valve failure and further
caused the MIC gas to leak from a 30m high chimney. This height was not enough to reduce the
effects of the discharge, the leaking MIC gas could have been detoxified if the vent gas scrubber was
not turned off. At the time of the incident, a connecting pipe had been removed from the flare tower
which was designed to burn off leaking gas, for maintenance. The huge cloud of toxic gas drifted
straight into the densely populated city of Bhopal and settled over a half a million people (Edwards,
T. 2014).

Impact of the Bhopal disaster

On the day of exposure all residents of Bhopal who had lived within 4.83km of the factory
experienced acute respiratory and ophthalmic symptoms (Methyl Isocyanate, 2001). According to
government figures, approximately 5200 people died in just a few days following the spill, mainly
from cardiac and reportorial arrest (Union Carbide, 2014). Despite the high water reactivity of MIC,
this compound could possibly persist in the environment for many days after an initial release
(Methyl Isocyanate, 2001). After the disaster, in 1989 Union Carbide negotiated a settlement with
the Government of India of $470 million for the losses caused by the chemical spill (Smith. J., 2014).
The plant has never been properly cleaned up and it continues to poison the residents of Bhopal
(Edwards, T. 2014).

Inherent safer design

After the tragedy, Union Carbide has worked to develop and globally implement Responsible Care to
help prevent such an event in the future by improving process safety standards, community
awareness and emergency preparedness (Union Carbide, 2014).

This tragedy could have been

prevented if the inventory of MIC was eliminated or reduced by storing the substance in many small
containers rather than in one large container (Edwards, T. 2014).

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Bhopal Disaster
1. Chronic Toxicity Summary - Methyl Isocyanate. 2001. [Online]. Available: [2015, February 20].
2. Smyth, J. 2014. Bhopal Disaster. Greenpeace. [Online]. Available: [2015, February 21].
3. Union Carbide Corporation - Bhopal Gas Tragedy. 2014. [Online]. Available: [2015, February 22].
4. Edwards, T. 2014. The Bhopal Medical Appeal. [Online]. Available: [2015, February 22].

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