THE world's support and sympathy reach out to the people of the central Indian city of Bhopal in the wake of this week's toxic gas leak with more than over 1,000 fatalities. The world's developed nations should stand ready to provide any assistance India requires. Such an offer has been made by the Union Carbide Corporation, part owner of the pesticide manufacturing factory from which the gas emanated.
It is the second reminder in little more than two weeks of the potential costs, as well as benefits, of industrial development in third-world nations. The previous incident occurred Nov. 19 in a suburb of Mexico City when a storage facility of liquefied gas exploded, killing more than 300 people.
Until investigations are completed, no judgments should be made on culpability, if any, in the Bhopal gas leak. Yet at the same time certain points should be noted.
Poorer nations are in a difficult position as they seek to climb up the world's economic ladder. They desperately seek to attract industries that will provide the required large numbers of jobs for their citizens. Yet they seek also to protect the well-being and safety of their citizenry.
The dichotomy is faced, in lesser degree, by poorer regions in the United States as they struggle to achieve an economic footing more nearly equivalent to that of wealthier areas in the nation.
Some overseas plants are engaged in manufacturing enterprises that carry the potential of risks for employees and nearby residents.
In some instances these risks are inherent in the nature of the work, such as a manufacturing process that employs poisonous gas at one stage, as did the Bhopal pesticide plant. The operating companies maintain a responsibility to ensure that staffing, training, and safety precautions are at the highest standards, a special challenge in nations where educational levels are often far lower than in the developed world.
In both the Bhopal and Mexico City incidents, the facilities were in impoverished neighborhoods. Such location simultaneously makes jobs accessible to low-income people in nations without developed mass transit, yet can put large numbers of people at risk should accidents occur. Where feasible, thought should be given to locating such operations further from population centers in the future, and transporting workers en masse.
No safety rules exist at present in the US concerning the underground storage of toxic gases; in Bhopal the leaking gas came from subterranean tanks. Rules are expected within the next year or so, however; they were mandated by a law Congress passed last year. The regulations should be drawn with great care so as to minimize the possibility of such an incident in the US; similarly stringent safety procedures should be followed by US companies with overseas facilities so that citizens of other nations are similarly protected.
Further, other existing regulations concerning the storage and use of toxic materials in manufacturing should be examined closely to see that they provide requisite protection to employees and nearby residents.