Expert panel bars release of Bhopal tragedy research findings

Report on congenital deformities in children born to women exposed to the 1984 gas leak is inconclusive, says committee.

November 29, 2019 12:33 am | Updated December 03, 2021 10:10 am IST - NEW DELHI

Children affected by the Bhopal gas tragedy at a rally. File

Children affected by the Bhopal gas tragedy at a rally. File

An expert committee explicitly barred the publication of the findings of a research study that said babies born to women — who as children were exposed to the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal — were significantly more likely to have “congenital malformations” than those born to women unexposed to the gas.

The study had methodological flaws, was poorly designed and its findings were inconclusive, the committee ruled. First conceived in 2012, the study underwent design and methodology reviews by multiple committees before it was commissioned at a cost of ₹48 lakh.

The expert committee consisted of scientists from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi; the National Institute for Research in Environmental Health (NIREH), Bhopal; and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR).

Images: Bhopal gas tragedy — then and now

The findings emerged in response to a question under the Right To Information Act and were made public at a press conference in Bhopal on Thursday by an association of activists fighting for those affected by the leak of methyl isocyanate from the Bhopal factories of Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) in December 1984.

The activists alleged that the ICMR, the parent body of the NIREH, suppressed the data. “If the study design was indeed flawed, how was it approved at three successive meetings over two years? If mistakes have been made, why hide them from people?” asked Rashida Bee, president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh. ICMR Director-General Balram Bhargava could not be reached for comment.

The Supreme Court has admitted a curative petition, which demands more compensation for those affected by the disaster. Data on congenital defects in children, activist Rachna Dhingra told The Hindu , were important in bolstering the case for compensation.

How The Hindu covered the 1984 Bhopal calamity

The study was led by Ruma Galgalekar, a scientist at the NIREH. From January 2016 to June 2017, she examined 1,048 newborns of those who as children were exposed to the gas. The newborns also included grandchildren of pregnant women exposed to the gas. All of the infants were compared to another 1,247 newborns born to women not exposed to the gas. “Congenital malformities in the progeny of the exposed were 9% and those in the unexposed group was 1.3%.” When queried by The Hindu , Ms. Galgalekar refused additional comment on the expert committee’s view. The first study on the effects of the gas leak on the progeny of pregnant women was commissioned in 1985, and it emerged that defects were apparent in 14.2 of every 1,000 births among women exposed to the leak, as opposed to 12.6 per 1,000 among those not exposed, was and considered statistically insignificant.

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