forum discussion #6

Preventing Future Bhopals

toxicwaste150On Dec. 3, 1984, a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, released a cloud of poison gas.

Thousands died. Hundreds of thousands were injured.

The disaster alerted the world to the dangers of toxic substances.

Listen to Rhitu Chatterjee’s story on Bhopal’s legacy here. Or Download MP3

Yet a quarter century after the Bhopal disaster, toxic chemicals still threaten lives in the developing world.

What can be done to safeguard the public in developing countries from toxic chemicals? Can consumers and investors in developed countries play a role?

In this World Science Forum, we talk to Henrik Selin.

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He’s a professor of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book Global Governance of Hazardous Chemicals.

Listen to our interview with Selin. Download MP3, or listen here:

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Now it’s your chance to ask the questions. Join our conversation with Henrik Selin.

  • Has the U.S. unfairly exported its toxic risks to other countries?
  • Selin says the World Trade Organization helps regulate the safety of products but not processes. Should that change?
  • How can you ensure that the holiday gifts you buy don’t come from unsafe factories?

The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.

Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    Thanks, Henrik, for your comments on the radio show and for participating in the forum.

    If the U.S. has stricter environmental standards than developing countries do, should the conscientious consumer look for the “Made in America” label? Does domestic production likely mean safer production?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

      David, thank you for the question. There is no guarantee that US-produced goods are “better” from an environmental and social perspective than imported products; it differs greatly among countries and manufacturers. Interested consumers in the US and elsewhere may look at several company report cards lists before purchasing products made by both US and foreign companies. These include on-line lists complied by Greenpeace, Newsweek, Scorecard, the Environmental Working Group, and Climate Counts. These and other similar lists are compiled using somewhat different assessment criteria.

  2. Grace

    I was thinking perhaps if we get some kind of public service type announcement out about the dumping of ewaste in 3rd world countries and that the more consumption of gadgets produces more of this toxic waste… that using your ‘old’ phone or computer that works perfectly fine will help to reduce e-waste… A new approach to the commercial world.
    I have seen commercials stating that this years best accessory is the new ” phone. As if changing them yearly is something people must do.
    I know that most people don’t see that their efforts one way or the other impact others but there must be a way to link our role to the global picture. Perhaps more stories like Bhopal. Use the shock factor.
    I would like to believe that it is possible.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

      Grace, there is definitely a need for more public education about the generation and safe management of e-waste, both in industrialized and developing countries. “60 Minutes” did a good segment a little over a year ago: The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also works on raising awareness: However, this issue deserves much more political and public attention.

      Each person’s consumption choices may have important consequences all the way down often very long commodity lines. Peter Dauvergne’s book “The Shadows of Consumption” provides illuminating examples and helpful suggestions:

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

        Thanks, Henrik, for the comments and links! I’m adding “The Shadows of Consumption” to my reading list– in the mean time, are there a couple of the examples or suggestions you could share here?

      • Grace

        I am adding it as well. Thanks for your input.

    • Rekha Murthy

      Henrik – thank you for an interesting interview.

      While I agree that consumption is part of the problem, an even larger part seems to me to be the planned obsolescence of electronics by manufacturers. It’s not quite fair to blame the consumer so much when our products break down quickly or degrade in function/compatibility at a relentless pace set by the industry. Plus, most of us couldn’t imagine just how toxic the materials are. How can we pressure companies to develop better, longer-lasting products?

      Some excellent coverage of the ewaste issue:

      Current TV:


      Story of Stuff:

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

        Rekha, good point about the role of the manufactures. Consumer demand is important, but so is government pressure on manufacturers. We are seeing the importance of this in Europe through directives such as WEEE, RoHS and REACH, which are pushing manufacturers to substitute hazardous substances and improve design. This is now spreading to other countries, including China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Some similar action is taken in a growing number of US states, but we need more of this. Ultimately, the US federal government should set such product and recycling standards, and I think we are heading in that direction based on recent legslative proposals in Congress.

  3. david egilman md mph

    I am not aware of any improvements in control systems in plants in developing countries. I have seen no data on this.

    To the contrary if you examine the BP Texas City operations you find no improvement even 5 years after the explosion. And this is in the US.

    Countries do not guard their autonomy. They are bullied.

    There has been no cost to UC or Dow for Bhopal. Your argument is Greenspan like except he has admitted he was wrong.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

      David, not a single management system in a single factory in a single developing country has been improved over the past 25 years? Countries like China (and the United States) fiercely protect their sovereignty. And there are examples where companies based in industrialized countries take management practices with them when they open factories in developing countries and push to raise domestic standards, in part because of economic reasons. I recommend Ronie Garcia-Johnson’s book “Exporting Environmentalism” on this topic ( Of course, this does not happen all the time, but it is critical to approach these issues in a nuanced way, recognizing both problems and progress while discussing issues in a respectful way.

      • david egilman md mph

        Well I have not seen any systematic studies. Anecdotes go both ways. This is not a question of bad apples. Capitalism encourages companies to externalize costs. Companies must do this or they will violate their only fiduciary responsibility. Penalties are a joke (450 million to kill 2-8000 people) and therefore do not serve as a counter to the benefits of externalizing costs in terms of worker and consumer injury and environmental degradation.

        When (if) workers in developing countries realize they are loosing jobs because companies are moving to places where they can better exploit externalities they will force Western standards onto these companies.
        Companies (see the big banks) do not care about reputation – they care about profits. There are no bad or good people here – only a system

    • So happy to see your name on the responders to this article. You may remember me.

  4. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

    Tracing commodity chains is very tricky; the more components there are in a product, the more difficult it is to find out where the different parts came from and where and how they were manufactured. For goods such as a TV or a refrigerator there can be hundreds of components. The brand name tells you who put it all together in the end, but that company bought components from suppliers who bought components for their component from their suppliers etc. The company that puts the final product together often does not know where all the parts come from, but has to rely on its suppliers keeping track of their suppliers etc. However, for products like wood (not many components) certification schemes may work. See, for example, the work by the Forest Stewardship Council:

  5. I can’t agree that there is “less risk” now than there was 25 years ago, since there is so much more dangerous manufacturing going on all around the world now. While there have been some improvements, they have been outweighed by the proliferation of new dangers. A few examples from the electronics industry: massive construction of huge factories without adequate safeguards throughout Asia has created enviornmental and occupational health disasters. See for instance:
    ** Challenging the Chip: Labor rights and environmental justice in global electronics
    **RCA workers suffer high rates of cancer
    **High incidence of cancer at Samsung in Korea

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

      Ted, there are two slightly different issues here. The first one, which I responded to in the interview, is the risk of major industrial accidents with toxic pollution affecting local populations, like Bhopal and Seveso. Here, many, but definitely not all, manufacturers have created additional safeguards to try to prevent such accidents. The second issue is labor conditions inside factories. You are right that because industrial manufacturing has increased so much in Asia, more people in absolute terms are working in this sector today than 25 years. Your co-edited book, “Challenging the Chip,” is a very informative read about some of the unacceptable risks that workers continue to face in the electronics sector. SVTC is doing a great job!

  6. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee


    What do you think will make a significant impact on reducing toxic hazards in the future? Does it ultimately boil down to education and public awareness? That people in developing countries need to understand the toxic threats around them and demand safer workplaces, and environment, and consumers and investors in developed countries need to demand corporate social and environmental responsibility?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

      Rhitu, much needs to be done in both developing AND industrialized countries. In a recent paper, I discuss four sets of challenges: 1) Enhance ratification and implementation of existing regulations; 2) Expand risk assessments and controls; 3) Improve management capacity and raise awareness; and 4) Minimize generation of hazardous chemicals and wastes ( Ultimately, more pro-active and precaution-based regulatory structures are needed. The most effective way to protect human health and the environment from risks posed by hazardous substances is, of course, to avoid producing and using them in the first place. To this end, “green chemistry” should receive more attention and support.

  7. Hi – this is a great discussion. There’s a decent portrait of green chemistry posted 12/4/09 on this blog:

    Also – regarding commodity chains – feel compelled to mention FTR that there is software (new, but implemented and working) that gets data on the substance-level ingredients in supplier’s products. The software reaches out to suppliers via automated questionnaires, then feeds answers into a structured, queriable database. Stanley Works is using it in Europe to handle REACH regulation. Other clients use it for more general envirolaw compliance. Article on it here:

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

      Thanks for the comments and links. I think REACH hasn’t come up yet in this discussion, so, just for the record, it’s a European regulation that deals with Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances. It’s supposed to encourage industry to substitute safer chemicals into its processes wherever possible.
      A question: How effective has this been so far? Any noticable outcomes, or is it too soon to say?

      • Hi – bearing in mind the market is only in the initial phases of REACH, the most noticeable outcome of REACH so far is the paradigm shift. Chemical and manufacturing companies used to thrive on “secret ingredients” and “secret formulas,” but under REACH and similar ordinances suddenly Material Disclosure is the order of the day. Opening the kimono is a slow and shy process. That said, the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is on a mission to identify, test, and manage the over 80,000 chemicals zinging around the market. Jackson testified December 2: Software will be critical. In the end, consumer interest will drive this type of regulation — REACH, CA Green Chemistry, and so on — so let’s keep talking.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

      KM, thank you for the information, especially about the software. I was aware about the fact that firms were working on developing and using these kinds of tools, but I had not realized how far some of them had come. This is good news both with respect to the need for generating more information throughout supply chains and for the implementation of REACH (which is very much designed to collect this kind of information and make it more readily available).

  8. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

    REACH is just a few years into a more than decade long implementation phase, so it is too early to say exactly how big of an impact it will have. REACH also operates alongside two other sets of EU directives known as RoHS and WEEE as well as a “green design” directive. Some information about early implementation can be found here: These policy developments are very important both in Europe and outside. There is growing evidence of the “trading up” of controls and standards in Europe and other parts of the world (including California and some developing countries). I wrote about some of these dynamics a few years back:

    • Henrik – hi – your 13-page report on the upping of controls and standards in the EU and elsewhere is excellent. Well-written and insightful. Thanks for posting.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

        I am glad you liked the paper. You obviously know a lot about chemicals policy and management; what is your connection to these issues?

  9. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

    Another important aspect of this issue concerns not only human health impacts of contamination, but also the financial costs of cleaning up contaminated areas. The US Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (the Superfund Act) was passed in 1980 to deal with sites like Love Canal. In 2007, this act listed 275 priority chemicals and heavy metals commonly used and found at contaminated sites. The US government spent $1.2 billion on Superfund projects in 2006 alone. While 24 sites were completed in 2007, there are more than 1250 unaddressed sites on the Superfund National Priority List (and more will be added in the future). No-one knows what the global costs of clean-up of contaminated areas may be, but they will be enormous if we expect it to be done properly.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee


      To follow up on Superfund, thought I’d share a resource that people might find helpful.

      Its the result of The Center for Public Integrity’s year long investigation into toxic clean up in the U.S. The website has detailed info on the 1623 toxic dump sites around the country. You can zoom in on each site using google map and get an update. Its from 2007, but is still useful to anyone interested in Superfund.


  10. Henrik, thank you for this much needed discussion. This discussion has centered on regulation of chemical factories. Shouldn’t we also be talking about safe transport of toxic chemicals, storage of toxic chemicals offsite, that use and disposal of toxic chemicals?

    Nine months after Bhopal, I was injured by methyl isocyanate and a host of other toxic chemicals, but not in a developing country. I was exposed for three days to this chemical while teaching at Long Beach Middle School in Mississippi USA. Two dozen children and teachers were seriously injured as well. Unfortunately our story of injustice parallels that of the victims in Bhopal. Two tankers of methyl isocyanate were transported into Mississippi then parked a few feet from the school cafeteria for three weeks.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

      Nancy, I am sorry about your personal experience with hazardous chemicals. You are absolutely right that the transport, storage and use of chemicals can cause severe problems. This is true for both industrialized and developing countries, but problems in developing countries are often exacerbated by a lack of information and weak domestic regulatory institutions. Looking at national reports submitted under the Stockholm Convention gives you an idea about the scope of the problem for just a few chemicals: Many more chemicals are causing problems world-wide, including many regularly used pesticides. There is a global pesticide problem.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

        In light of the pesticide problem–is choosing organic food something that could impact the production and use of hazardous chemicals around the globe?

  11. Grace

    So many great perspectives and interesting stories/links. I will further investigate here.
    Thank you all so much.

  12. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

    Elsa, your organic farming question is a simple question requiring a long and complex answer! Living in the US, I think it is generally a good idea to support local and organic/environmentally friendly farms (while noting that organically produced food can still come with a big carbon footprint depending on transportation issues) as well as reduce pesticide use to a minimum. However, we also need to feed people all over the world. This could perhaps be the topic of a future Science Forum: Can organic farming feed a growing world population?!?!

  13. Henrik, In preventing future Bhopals, let’s not forget the historic chemical security legislation (H.R. 2868) approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on November 6th. This compromise bill could prevent Bhopal catastrophes at about 107 of the highest risk U.S. chemical plants. Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) will introduce legislation in January. Ideally Congress should adopt security standards that ensure that ALL of the highest risk plants use safer chemical processes. At least 287 U.S. chemical plants have converted to safer chemical processes since 1999, eliminating these risks for 38.5 million Americans. However, another 300 plants put 110 million Americans at risk. A complete list of safer processes is at:

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

      Rick, thank you for adding this information to the discussion. It demonstrates both that at least some things are improving but also that there is a long way to go before we achieve appropriate chemical safety. Sen. Lautenberg has been pushing chemicals legislation for a long time (and Waxman and other have been doing the same in the House). So far to no avail. However, the time may now actually be ripe for making needed changes to TSCA and other pieces of federal legislation.

  14. Chemical security legislation has to be enacted before a temporary law expires on Oct. 1st. The only question is will the new law gamble on “fence-line” security that has failed in the past or use proven safer chemicals and processes that can eliminate these risks entirely. For the first time since 9/11 both the President and our Congressional leadership want to eliminate these risks where ever feasible with safer chemical processes. That’s a huge turnaround that presents a very promising situation for 2010. Here’s a link to the President & Vice President speaking on this legislation when they were in the Senate:

  15. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

    It is difficult to get a global overview of the extent and severity of pollution and contamination problems. The Blacksmith Institute and the Green Cross Switzerland keeps a list of some of the worst polluted areas in the world: This list only reveals the tip of the iceberg when comes to pollution problems, but it also showcases success stories. In general, heavy metals have received less global political attention than chemicals. This is beginning to change with negotiations on a mercury treaty starting next year: and

  16. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Henrik Selin

    Thank you all for your comments and questions; it was both fun and educational to participate in this forum! There is currently a lot of focus on climate change, and rightfully so. At the same time, we need to remember that there are many other important environment and development issues besides climate change. The production, trade, use and disposal of hazardous chemicals and heavy metals are critical sustainable development issues for both industrialized and developing countries. Societal shifts towards more pro-active and precautionary management systems for hazardous substances are essential but difficult. These are important issues that we will be talking about for a long time!

  17. it is still better to adhere on organic farming because the fruits and vegetables does not contain those harmful chemicals..,”

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