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How the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in India has hurt multiple generations

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly 39 years ago, the central Indian city of Bhopal was hit with what's still considered the world's worst industrial accident. Toxic gas leaked out of a pesticide factory run by the Indian subsidiary of an American company called Union Carbide. Thousands died immediately after that accident, and tens of thousands more have died since. Now a new study finds that the impacts of that horrific accident span generations. Researchers show that the disaster has burdened people who were born in the year after the accident with cancer, disabilities and poverty. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee joins us now to explain these new findings. Hi, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just first tell us a little more about what happened back in 1984? And before you do, I just want to warn listeners that the details here are intense and devastating.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. So this was on the night of December 3, 1984. The gas leak started shortly after midnight, when everyone was fast asleep. The gas was methyl isocyanate, an extremely toxic chemical used as an intermediary to make pesticides. And an estimated 40 tons of it leaked out and spread through Bhopal, exposing half a million residents. And, you know, people started waking up with their eyes and throats burning. And, you know, there was panic on the streets. And I spoke with this woman named Rehana Bi on the phone, who was only 16 at the time and lived very close to the factory - still does. And she told me that she remembers waking up that night to the sounds of neighbors banging on their door, calling her father's name.

REHANA BI: (Speaking Hindi).

CHATTERJEE: She says when they opened the door, they saw lots of people outside, all coughing and blinded by the gas. She says the air felt as if someone was burning tons of chilis. And so Rehana Bi and her family joined their neighbors on the street, trying to run away from the gas, but they couldn't escape it. Also, her mother was eight months pregnant, so they couldn't really run very fast. And a few hours after daybreak, she says, her 3-year-old brother died.

BI: (Speaking Hindi).

CHATTERJEE: And by that evening, her father had died, as had her pregnant mother. And this next thing, Ailsa, is really hard to hear. It kept me up at night after I talked to Rehana Bi. She told me that several of her family members saw the baby in her dead mother's womb moving until the following day, and then it died, too.

CHANG: Oh, my God, how devastating. Her family, though - they were just, you know, among thousands of people who lost loved ones - right? - immediately after.

CHATTERJEE: Exactly. And, you know, even the people who survived, people like Rehana Bi, have continued to struggle with a host of chronic health issues and are still struggling today.

CHANG: Right. Let's talk about that. I want to get into this new study. It shows that this tragedy, this disaster, had long-term effects on the following generations as well. Tell us more about what this study found.

CHATTERJEE: So the study used data from India's National Family Health Survey to try and get a sense of whether the generation that was in utero at the time of the accident - whether that generation was affected by the accident as well. And the study finds that indeed it was. In fact, that generation is doing worse than those who lived through the disaster, even. Here's study author Gordon McCord of the University of California San Diego.

GORDON MCCORD: All the way out to 100 kilometers from Bhopal, that 1985 birth cohort was very strange.

CHATTERJEE: Firstly, he says that there were fewer male babies born that year compared to previous years and later years. And he told me that that's not totally surprising because we know that male fetuses are more vulnerable to any kind of harmful exposure in utero.

CHANG: Oh, really? I had no idea. Well, what about the babies who were born that very year and who are now adults? How are they faring?

CHATTERJEE: So McCord says that the generation of men born in 1985 in Bhopal is worse off in terms of health, education and employment compared to those who were born before and after.

MCCORD: They have a higher likelihood of reporting to have cancer. They have a higher likelihood of reporting to have a disability that prevents them from being employed, and they on average have two years less of education.

CHATTERJEE: And that, you know, means that this generation was more likely to remain trapped in poverty because of the disaster, and the findings after this ongoing global discussion about what do we as a society owe future generations for damages caused by disasters.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, what do you think, Rhitu? Do you think these findings are likely to help the survivors of this accident or their children in any way?

CHATTERJEE: So it's too early to say anything about that. Now, those who lived through the disaster themselves have received very little compensation so far, and not a single person born after the disaster has received anything. But one advocate for Bhopal survivors that I spoke to recently told me that India hasn't yet shut the door on compensating the next generation. So she is hopeful that this study will, in time, help make a difference on that front.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you, Rhitu.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAN OMARI SONG, "MOVE TOO FAST (FEAT. ANNA WISE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.