“Very refreshing! DOW Chemical Pesticide Water! Free samples! Very refreshing!” Volunteers with non-profit Students for Bhopal gathered yesterday at the entrance to New York’s Union Square Whole Foods Market to hawk their faux-goods, trying to tempt shoppers and passersby with mini sip cups full of filthy-looking blue and green tinted “chemical water.” Posing as DOW Chemical employees, the volunteers donned red aprons emblazoned with the company’s logo, and kept up eerily chipper smiles and sales jargon to rival that of the sleaziest car salesman you’ve ever imagined.

“We’re offering chemical water samples,” volunteer Aquene Freechild explained, smiling and handing out literature. “The residents of Bhopal India have been enjoying water just like this free of charge for the past twenty-five years!”

The tongue-in-cheek protest was staged in remembrance of the Bhopal Gas Disaster, the “worst peacetime chemical disaster in history,” according to Students for Bhopal and their parent organization, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB). Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the day that, as ICJB’s flier stated, “27 tons of lethal gasses leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory, immediately killing at least 8,000 people and poisoning half a million others. The factory’s six safety systems that would have prevented the disaster were all either malfunctioning, under repair, or switched off as a part of a cost-cutting exercise.”

Curiously, DOW didn’t actually acquire the Union Carbide (UC) pesticide factory until 2001, seventeen years after the Bhopal disaster. But ICJB holds DOW accountable for the damage – not least of which are high levels of mercury, dichlorobenzene, chloroform, and other toxins in the drinking water of over 20,000 people – because the company still has yet to require that UC appear in Bhopal District Court to face criminal charges.

The timing of the Bhopal anniversary is ironic, given recent positive developments between the U.S. and India on climate change issues.

From Environment News Service, Nov 24:

“We’ve made progress in confronting climate change,” President Obama said in a joint news conference with Prime Minister Singh today. “We agreed to a series of important new efforts: a clean energy initiative that will create jobs and improve people’s access to cleaner, more affordable energy; a green partnership to reduce poverty through sustainable and equitable development; and an historic effort to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels.


* Photo: (c) Shan Jayakumar 2009. A citizen outside Whole Foods sniffs the suspicious looking water after being informed it is not recommended for human consumption.