8 Worst Man-Made Environmental Disasters of All Time

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Image: Flickr, The Giant Vermin

Bhopal. Chernobyl. Love Canal. Seveso. Just a few of the names that have entered the lexicon of devastation wrought by the foolishness of mankind. Ecological travesties afflict the seas: the dead zone at the foot of the Mighty Mississippi, the Exxon Valdez or the North Pacific Gyre. Other disasters we have engineered intentionally: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Land mines. No one can change history, but how have we learned from the past? Are the laws named after these disasters effective? And is there a lesson here that can change our path into the future?

1. War

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Image: manhattanproject.it

Perhaps the most tragic man-made disasters stem from war. Whether it be the complete devastation wrought by nuclear weapons or an antique practice such as strewing salt in the earth of the defeated enemies, war is by its very nature destructive. From elephants stepping on landmines to contaminated water, to the vast quantities of fuel consumed, war is hell. Military personnel and civilians alike face exposure to chemicals which later leave a legacy of contamination that may be related to illness, birth defects and unbalanced natural ecosystems for decades after a war has ended. The only lesson left for humanity to learn is how to pick and fight the battles that count for the survival of all of us. The enemy now is dwindling water, climbing temperatures and ecological imbalance. Will fighting increase if resources are threatened? Or will we learn to work together to focus energy and solve the problems at hand before a crisis backs us into the corner?

2. Bhopal

man made disaster bhopal photo
Flickr, Obbino

Image: Flickr, Obbino

December 3, 1984. The worst industrial chemical disaster ever, Bhopal evokes images of panic and thousands of corpses found in the morning after a deadly fog drifted across the city in Madya Pradesh county, India. Reports claim between 3,000 and 4,000 fatalities in the wake of the leak from the Union Carbide pesticide factory, with around 50,000 people treated for illnesses related to the leak, including blindness and liver and kidney failure. Activists say that 20,000 deaths since the leak can be attributed directly to the chemical accident.

Studies have suggested serious insufficiencies in the safety measures at the installation, including lack of safety valves to prevent the mixing of water into the Methyl isocyanate tanks which started the evolution of the toxic gas, and the failure of scrubbers to treat the gas leak--apparently they were out of service for repair. Union Carbide claims the incident could only result from sabotage. Tests to prove the theory of a water leak due to inferior system engineering failed to prove a credible hypothesis for how water entered the MIC tank. Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of Dow, paid the Indian government $470 million in a 1989 settlement of a lawsuit claiming $3 billion.

Bhopal raised awareness for care in placing dangerous installations and for using less hazardous chemicals wherever possible. Engineering risk assessments and independent, fail-safe protections for all hazardous processes became standard as industry commitment and regulations drove improvements.

3. Chernobyl

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Flickr, stahlmandesign

Image: Flickr, stahlmandesign

April 26, 1986. Reactor 4 at Chernobyl was scheduled to be shut down, but a decision was made to use the shut-down as an opportunity to test a theory. It had never been proven that cooling could be maintained in the event of an external power failure. Engineers believed that residual energy from the turbine rotation could be used to pump cooling water until emergency generators kicked in. Unfortunately, the test was poorly conceived and badly executed. The resulting run-away nuclear reaction, fire and explosion released more than 400-fold the amount of radiation from the Hiroshima bomb, hitting Belarus hardest and extending as far as Ireland. A total of 56 deaths and over 4,000 cancer cases are attributed directly to the accident.

The greatest lessons arising from this event involve the response: Emergency personnel were not informed of the risk, and the public was put at greater exposure due to poor evacuation measures. Today, a 30-kilometer exclusion zone remains unoccupied around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where large amounts of nuclear material in a decaying sarcophagus continue to incite concern.

4. Seveso

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Image: Flickr, Photos8.com

July 10, 1976. A plume of tetrachlorodibenzoparadioxin (TCDD) contaminated vapors is released from a pesticide plant in the town of Seveso, Italy. Some 37,000 people were exposed to the highest levels ever recorded of a dioxin, a class of chemicals believed to be poisonous and carcinogenic even in micro-doses. Over 600 people were evacuated and several thousand were treated for dioxin poisoning, evidenced mainly by severe cases of chloracne. Over 80,000 animals were slaughtered to prevent the toxins entering food chains.

The accident provided massive amounts of data on dioxin exposures that is still being studied even today. Thanks to the foresight of attending physicians who saved blood samples from all the victims, better quantification of the scope of the incident was possible after test methods became available in 1987.

Moreover, the name Seveso is now used routinely in the European chemical industry: It is the name of a law which requires all facilities handling, or even storing, quantities of hazardous materials to inform the authorities, the community surrounding the plant, and to develop and publicize measures to prevent and respond to major accidents.