A Scientist's Warning: in the Third World High Tech Can Be Deadly

The disasters came within weeks of each other, separated by thousands of miles but linked by their common cause, technology gone out of control. At 5:42 a.m. last November 19, the first of several tanks containing liquefied gas exploded with a thunderous roar in a crowded suburb of Mexico City, incinerating nearly 500 people and injuring 4,000 more. Fifteen days later, in Bhopal, India, the accidental release of a toxic cloud from a Union Carbide chemical plant left 2,500 dead and another 200,000 maimed, blinded or otherwise injured. Many observers believe that although the timing of these tragedies was coincidental, each represented a fatal lapse of responsibility on the part of both business and government. According to Dr. A. Karim Ahmed, senior staff scientist and research director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental organization that monitors the spread of dangerous technologies worldwide, the proliferation of life-threatening chemicals and industrial processes has simply outstripped the restraints that are needed. Raised in Pakistan, Dr. Ahmed, 45, received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Minnesota. A U.S. citizen, he is based in New York, where he discussed the problem of hazardous technology in the Third World with Reporter Thomas Cunneff.

Why did the disasters at Bhopal and Mexico City occur?

It boils down to the fact that the Third World has been flooded with dangerous technologies where the regulatory infrastructure is not in place, the training of workers is inadequate, and local management is lackadaisical about ensuring safety.

What else do these tragedies have in common?

Many potentially dangerous plants have been built in areas where no one was living originally. But when you build an industrial structure in the Third World, a shantytown will develop around it because people have to be close to where they can be employed. The scope of both these disasters could have been averted through simple zoning laws. But that’s not the only problem. As bad as Bhopal and Mexico City were, we never hear about the minor accidents that happen daily in the Third World.

What kind of accidents?

The citizens of the Third World view pesticides as benign agents that kill disease-bearing pests. So they develop an attitude that these substances are good and harmful only to the bugs. Many people don’t realize that after you’ve used up a can of pesticide, you shouldn’t use it for drinking water. But in Third World countries where people have no tap water and have to haul home what they drink from miles away, these empty cans are valuable commodities. Small containers, still contaminated with pesticides, may even be used by children as lunch pails.

Any other examples?

In the Andes of South America workers spray pesticides all day long while wearing woolen ponchos that soak up a lot of residue. But because they are very poor, don’t own extra clothes and have very little heat, they sleep in their ponchos, exposing a wife and children to the stuff. Pakistani farmers, in order to carry home a granular pesticide, fill up their turbans with it and then put the turbans back on their heads, not realizing that pesticides can be absorbed through the scalp.

What happens to these people?

The consequences cover the whole spectrum of ailments from minor ones to severe ones that result in death. Some of these people are treated, some are not. Many of these communities do not have medical facilities, and if there is some information available about an antidote, the antidote itself is often not available.

Why is this ignorance so widespread?

The companies involved are making some efforts to present the right information, but their outreach is very limited. Farmers buy these chemicals at the marketplace where the lady who is selling cabbages and carrots is also selling pesticides. They get much of their information through folklore. It’s simply that a technology has been introduced into a society that’s not prepared to use it in a proper way.

How much longer will this problem last?

The Bhopal disaster will awaken the Indian government from its slumber, and I think it will also jolt other Third World countries. But many more Bhopals may exist, and we’ve got to do something about it.

But doesn’t the absence of government regulation serve the Third World’s purpose of attracting technology?

To a certain degree, yes. These countries, which are essentially medieval in character, are trying to catch up to modern society by acquiring in one or two decades technology that took us centuries to develop. And while major corporations like Union Carbide do not ordinarily operate under a double standard when it comes to safety, many small-and medium-size companies build plants in countries without occupational and environmental protection laws because doing so is more economical.

Can you name some of these companies?

The U.S.-based company Amatex built two asbestos textile plants just across the Mexican border, where they have disregarded occupational-safety standards that would have been required in the U.S. Another U.S. company, Pennwalt, was minority owner of a chemical plant in Nicaragua where one-third of the workers were found to have symptoms of mercury poisoning. In addition, this plant poured an estimated 40 tons of mercury into Lake Managua, one of the principal water supplies for the people there. The lake is still contaminated.

Aren’t the countries to blame for allowing this to happen?

To a large degree, yes. Some countries insist that corporations like Union Carbide, rather than manufacture a product in the U.S. and export it, build a plant in their country and train the local people to run it. So some companies are forced into the double standard in order to sell a product in that market. But the companies can also choose not to build a plant where they would be manufacturing hazardous materials and employing less-than-qualified personnel—as was the case in Bhopal.

What should be done?

Unfortunately when some Third World governments hear that we want environmental protection in their countries at the level we insist on in the U.S., they think it’s a scheme to keep them underdeveloped forever. The international development agencies, the U.S. and Europe should provide enough information to these countries to make them understand where we’re coming from. In the meantime multinational corporations should not wait for guidelines. They should clean up their own act.

Do you think they will?

Bhopal was such an unmitigated disaster, I can’t imagine them not taking some voluntary action. The problem is that while companies try to cooperate on these issues, they also compete with each other. Not all are going to abide by the same standards.

Can we expect future catastrophes like those in Bhopal and Mexico City?

I think so. I’m particularly worried about places where chemical industries are being built, such as Brazil, Argentina and the Philippines, where similar conditions exist.

Could Bhopal happen here in the U.S.?

In principle, yes. But it appears we have much better safeguards and trained personnel here than in Bhopal. The leaks we’re hearing about now at Union Carbide’s West Virginia plant are quite normal and pose no serious problems. It is my understanding that Union Carbide has examined the worst-case scenario and has a plan of action to deal with it. But there is still no comprehensive set of federal regulations, like those imposed on the nuclear industry, that govern our chemical-storage facilities and establish safety guidelines for them.

Related Articles