Monday, December 14, 2009

responsibility of chemists

This time of the year, 25 years ago, I was a first term chemistry student, and one morning our inorg. chemistry prof put the periodic table aside to give us a stern lecture on our future responsibility as chemists. That's about the only thing I remember of the Bhopal disaster, which remains to this day (luckily, in a way) the worst industrial accident ever.

Despite being a responsible chemist and all that, I never looked all that closely at what happened and why, until reading this piece on the 25th anniversary.

Bhopal: 25 years of poison, by Indra Sinha

Reading this, you're left wondering whether the event should have been prosecuted as manslaughter, murder, or genocide, but the fact of the matter is that nobody has been prosecuted to this day. (Essentially, an extremely labile and dangerous substance was stored in a large tank, and somebody decided to switch off the cooling for that tank, to save costs, then water accidentally entered the tank and started a reaction -- there are several outrageously wrong decisions in this story that must not be allowed to happen inside a chemical factory.) And people in the area still ingest the poison and get diseases and birth defects from it.

Chemistry aside, what most angers me about these things is the inherent racism assuming that it's no big deal if 20,000 people die in India from negligence of a US-owned factory, while the deaths of 3,000 people in the US are an outrage that can be used as an excuse to invade two countries (again at the cost of tens of thousands less important lives). Clearly, all men are not created equal ...

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