This post is by Ginny Childs, a student who took the Exeter University Geography module that is behind our website last term. It’s a piece of (slightly edited) coursework that she wrote in response to reading behind Sofia Ashraf’s ‘Dow vs. Bhopal: a toxic rap battle’. Ginny wasn’t even born when the Bhopal factory exploded in 1984, but it affected her here and now. Here’s how…
I joined Exeter University Officer Training Corps this year. Last weekend was my first weapons training session; on the SA80 assault rifle. The first lesson I received was a ‘Normal Safety Procedure’ on what to do if I drop it and the sighting system cracks. The system uses tritium (a radioactive hydrogen isotope) in gas form, to create visible light. If it escapes, and I were to inhale it, radioactive damage could occur in my body.
Sat in my weapons training lesson, whilst thinking about tritium, my mind drifted to methyl isocyanate (MIC). The Bhopal disaster was the topic my group were researching for this module. I’d been researching the thousands of deaths and deformities this gas leak caused. Now, here I was being cautioned on tritium. It seemed silly. The rifle contains only a minute amount, and it’s deemed to be one of the least hazardous radionuclides. Yet, I was laboriously taken through a step-by-step routine to memorise the safety procedure: STEP AWAY FROM THE WEAPON… HOLD YOUR BREATH…GET ANY SMOKERS TO PUT OUT CIGARETTES…INFORM ARMOURY OF INCIDENT etc.
It got me thinking. Did Bhopal’s Union Carbide workers receive safety procedures on MIC? What were the evacuation plans in place? I looked at Amnesty International’s Bhopal disaster report. Their analysis of safety measures in UCC plants, found that in West Virginia, there were extensive training programmes among all levels of employees and a four-tier emergency plan was implemented. BUT in Bhopal, operators had insufficient training, and there was no procedure to circulate information concerning emergencies to the public apart from a siren (Amnesty International, 2004). It dawned on me that I’d likely received more risk training on tritium than Bhopal UCC workers undertook on MIC! 40 tons of MIC were released at Bhopal…. With an immediate death toll of over 2,000 people (Socialmilk, 2016). A rifle contains only 0.21 Curies of tritium, and if inhaled wouldn’t immediately kill a single person (CECOM Directorate for Safety, 2001:15). Why was I, like the workers in the West Virginia UCC plant, provided with more consolidated emergency procedures than those in Bhopal? It seems completely unjust.
Young (2003:42-43) notes that ‘We are connected by our own actions to the structural processes that produce injustice’. Do I, someone born over three decades after the Bhopal disaster, have any political responsibility for structural processes put in place before my time? Is it my responsibility to make DOW accountable for Bhopal? Barnett writes that ‘some people benefit from being positioned in such spatially extensive networks, and that therefore one has a responsibility that follows from unfair reward’ (Barnett, 2007:1068). I certainly felt in this instance, I had the ‘unfair reward’ of being born in a more economically developed country, at a time where there are globally more rigid safety protocols. The Bhopal incident in itself, has been claimed to have led to the development of the concept of ‘process safety’; the ‘proactive identification, evaluation, and mitigation or prevention of chemical releases that might occur as a result of failures in the process, procedures, or equipment’ (Hood, 2004: 354). Was I, sat in weapons training, receiving a safety lesson on tritium, as an indirect outcome of Bhopal? Is it too much of a leap to suggest the world’s largest industrial disaster served as an impetus for a larger cultural shift in focus on gas safety? Was I, then… personally benefiting from the Bhopal tragedy? Does this connection mean I need to take moral action?
Nagel (1970:19) argues that practical moral action can only emerge when there is an ability ‘to view oneself simultaneously as ‘I’ and as someone – an impersonally specifiable individual”. How else am I linked to Bhopal? Could I be upholding DOW’s position as a leader in speciality chemicals… through using their products? When searching through DOW’s partners, I found Univar, a company which disseminates DOW’s personal care ingredients throughout Europe. On their product page, an image popped up of a crosseyed woman, staring at a massive bubblegum bubble she had blown. The caption said ‘Everywhere, every day. Where do you find the products we distribute? In your mouth. Bright pink bubblegum and spearmint chewing gum both have one thing in common: Univar products’.
The Univar website introduced another personal connection of mine, to DOW. Gum. I looked into the ingredients list of my childhood favourite, Hubba Bubba, which I still buy occasionally to reminisce. Cross-checking it against a Univar document of all the food ingredients it produces… Aspartame (a sweetener) is a hit (Univar, 2013).
I also look up Extra and Wrigley’s spearmint gum: the common ingredient in all three is aspartame. So, it’s highly likely that, at some point, through trying different brands (I must have tried them all), I’ve ingested aspartame produced by Univar. Through buying gum with Univar ingredients, I’m connected to DOW by nature of their company partnership. I’m a part of the (frustratingly hard to untangle) relations between chemicals and people; therefore justice around such issues concerns me. I have a political responsibility to bring justice to ‘producers [who] suffer in relationships of market exchange which are unfair or exploitative’ (Corbridge, 2000: 178). But how do I do this?
The spark for these thoughts was this Dow vs. Bhopal toxic rap battle. We had been given it to research in class. Having done this, the most obvious way for me to take political responsibility concerning Bhopal is to raise awareness: share the video. This was something my lecturer suggested in passing. But, it’s an action I immediately dismissed. Why? Cuff et al (2016:149) notes that ‘empathy may be experienced without an associated behavioural response in cases of competing interests’. I definitely empathise with the Bhopal cause, but upon reflection (perhaps selfishly) my ‘social image’ is an obstacle. I like to think of myself as someone who keeps a low profile online; I don’t bombard social media with posts. But cultural activism works with the power of our media obsessed society to nurture forms of resistance (Verson, 2007:173). Ones which are flexible in their ability to adapt and reemerge. Perhaps I need to change to accommodate this? Perhaps I can find other forms of engaging with cultural activism that work better with me? Then my lecturer asked me if he could publish this on his blog. I said yes.
Amnesty International (2004) Clouds of injustice: Bhopal disaster 20 years on. Amnesty International Publications: London.
Askins, K. (2009) ‘That’s just what I do’: placing emotion in academic activism. Emotion, space & society 2(1), 4-13.
Barnett, C. & Land, D. (2007) Geographies of generosity: beyond the ‘moral turn’. Geoforum 38, 1065-1075.
CCECOM Directorate for Safety (2001), Radiation Safety Information Safe Handling Of Tritium Sources In Radioluminescent Devices: Technical Report. CCECOM Directorate for Safety: New Jersey.
Cuff, B., Brown, S.J,. Taylor, L., Howat, D. (2016) Empathy: A Review of the Concept. Emotion Review 8(2): 144-153.
Corbridge, S. ed. (2000) Development: Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences. Routledge, London.
Hood, E (2004) Lessons learned? Chemical plant safety since Bhopal. Environmental Health Perspectives, 112(6), 352–359
Nagel, T (1970) The Possibility Of Altrusim. Princeton Univeristy Press, Princeton.
Socialmilk (2016) DOW vs Bhopal A toxic rap battle. socialmilk, 3rd June (http://socialmilk.in/dow-vs-bhopal-a-toxic-rap-battle/ last accessed 19th October 2016)
Univar (2013) Univar Food Ingredients: Food Product Guide From Univar. (http://www.univar.com/~/media/PDFs/CA%20Region%20PDFs/Food%20Ingredients/Fo od%20Ingredients%20Product%20Line/Univar%20Food%20Product%20Guide.ashx last accessed, viewed 2 October 2016)
Verson, J. (2007) Why we need cultural activism. in Trapese Collective (eds) Do it yourself: a handbook for changing our world. London: Pluto, 171-186.
Young, I.M. (2003) From guilt to solidarity: sweatshops and political responsibility. Dissent 50(2), 39-44.
SA80 photograph used with Creative Commons license from Wikimedia.