The Transportation Department, acting after the recent fatal gas leak disaster in Bhopal, India, has proposed regulations that would require better placarding and higher quality containers for the transportation of hazardous materials that are deadly when inhaled.

The proposal, scheduled for publication today in the Federal Register, cites the Dec. 19 Bhopal incident, in which at least 2,000 people were killed by the accidental release of the gas methyl isocyanate (MIC). DOT will accept comments until March 14. After Bhopal, the National Transportation Safety Board and others decried the fact that MIC can be shipped in the United States in containers certified for gasoline because MIC is classified primarily as flammable, not toxic.

"It is difficult to accept the fact that a material whose primary hazard as classified by the Department of Transportation is its flammability would cause such widespread death due to its toxicity," the safety board said.

It noted that Union Carbide -- the only manufacturer of MIC -- imposed higher safety requirements on MIC shipments than did federal regulations.

The new proposal says that "the department believes there is merit in the basic concerns" expressed by the safety board.

The proposal cites a regulatory history dating to 1968 that is full of bureaucratic fits and starts in an attempt to reach definitions everyone could accept and to find packaging and labeling standards that could be adopted internationally, because many chemicals are shipped from country to country.

The proposal would require shipping papers for MIC and other chemicals to state "Poison-Inhalation Hazard;" require that placards reading "POISON" be placed on containers carrying highly toxic chemicals, and upgrade the minimum standards for containers of such chemicals.