[Main Menu]

Similar Industrial Tragedies
The poisoning of Minamata, Japan
Dioxin poisoning in Seveso, Italy

The poisoning of Minamata, Japan
Chisso Corporation

In 1932 the Chisso Corporation began to manufacture acetaldehyde (used to produce plastics) in Minamata, Japan, previously a poor fishing and farming village. As we know now, mercury from the process began to spill into the bay. As methyl mercury chloride the heavy metal could enter the food chain. At the time Minamata residents relied almost exclusively on fish and shellfish from the bay as a source of protein.

Since 1925 Chisso had been paying indemnity to local fisherman, for any damage caused to their fishing waters. Around 1952 production of acetaldehyde boomed and fish began to float in Minamata Bay. Also, cats began to exhibit bizarre behaviours resulting in them falling in the sea (the ‘cat suicide’).

Cats dancing disease

Behaviour similar to this began to occur in humans. People would stumble while walking, not be able to write or button their buttons, have trouble hearing or swallowing, or tremble uncontrollably. The physiological effects, including successive loss of motor control, were devastating, and resulted in sometimes partly paralysed and contorted bodies.

By the end of 1956 epidemilogical and medical researchers identified the disease as heavy metal poisoning caused by eating fish and shell fish of Minamata Bay.

Direct evidence that mercury from the Chisso plant was responsible, however, did not emerge until 1959. It was found that the plant’s acetaldehyde waste water caused the disease symptoms, nonetheless this was not made public.

Righting the wrongs

Chisso installed a ‘cyclator’ designed to control the emissions and offered ‘mimai’ (consolation payments) to the victims. But, the geographical distribution of the cases was widening as children were now being born with the ‘disease’.

The economic status of the people of Minamata and the social dimensions of the disease, they did not initially command the power to obtain proper compensation. Despite this the people of Minamata fought so that Chisso dealt directly with some, and others filed a suit against them.

The court ruled in favour of the patients and the demands of the negotiations group were met soon after.

In 1970 then a district court ruled that Chisso make payments totalling $3.2 million to the original group of patients.

From 1977 to 1990, 1.5 million cubic meters of contaminated sludge were dredged from the bay at a cost of half a billion dollars.

Today in Minamata

Chisso no longer produces acetaldehyde, but new victims continued to surface through the 1970s and 1980s. The symptoms can be partial: numbness or tingling in the extremities, for instance, or frequent headaches or the inability to concentrate.

More than $2 billion has been paid in compensation. The Japanese government seems to have bailed Chisso out, committing to loaning them a billion dollars for its compensation of the victims of Chisso’s pollution. While required to pay back the loan, it is without interest and without a time limit. While following the Polluter Pays Principle, the need to compensate victims has led the government to maintain the operations of Chisso, as a source of continued compensation of the victims.


The Legacy of Agent Orange

The Vietnam War

Tens of thousands of U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War and three generations of Vietnamese point to Agent Orange as the cause of any array of illnesses, and of severe birth defects in their children and grandchildren

Agent Orange was one of six defoliants sprayed by U.S. troops in South Vietnam from 1962 to 1971 to destroy vegetation where opposing troops could hide. During those nine years a series of United States Air Force missions, called Operation Ranch Hand, sprayed 18 million gallons of defoliants – 11 million gallons of which were Agent Orange – over 3.6 million acres in South Vietnam.

Dioxin produced by Monsanto and Dow Chemicals.

By 1969, the National Institutes of Health reported that Agent Orange, which contained the toxic chemical dioxin, caused birth defects in mice. Despite this warning, the two largest suppliers of Agent Orange, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, continued to produce the herbicide with high levels of dioxin. After the war, Dow suggested that many of the veterans’ problems were merely psychological. As U.S. veterans from the war began to succumb to a wide range of illnesses, a class-action suit was brought against seven chemical companies, including Monsanto and Dow Chemicals. In May 1984, the case was settled out of court for $180 million for the veterans and their families.

The victims

In Vietnam, as estimated 100,000 to two million people in Vietnam are Agent Orange. John Geoghegan, director of the International Federation of the Red Cross in Hanoi said: "Agent Orange planted chemical landmines deep in the very essence of life, in the genes of the men and women. Now the war is being fought again with the grandchildren of those involved in the conflict… Disturbingly, the effects appear to be cumulative. One former soldier who was burned by Agent Orange had a son was born without a toe, and a grandson born without a leg." Researchers attest that horrendous birth defects such as claw feet, twisted bones, skin disorders and eyes without pupils are linked to gene mutations caused by the chemicals in Agent Orange. Unfortunately, the worst affected areas are also the poorest, most isolated villages that have little access to medical facilities.

Dioxin poisoning in Seveso, Italy

A moral paradox
Health and safety have recently joined goodness, truth and justice among the pantheon of Western culture's root ideals. Moreover, better health and safety have become prominent public goals, precisely because there seem to be real possibilities for achieving them. Unfortunately, none of these ideals is unambiguous: all are characterized by internal contradictions that may generate either fruitful or destructive outcomes.

In the debates on risks in the 1970s, it gradually emerged that "safe" does not mean zero-risk. Just as an empirical proposition may be accepted as true and later proven false (e.g. the Ptolemaic system of the world), or an action apparently good later becomes judged to be bad, similarly an installation accepted as safe may later explode. But the reverse does not hold: if there is an explosion, it is not a simple refutation of the judgement "safe." This is an example of the principle that allows people to continue believing that flying in airplanes is "safe," even though there are occasional crashes.

These and similar contradictions associated with the concept of safety are managed pragmatically by a variety of devices. One of these is linguistic interpretation. "Safe" can mean that risk is variously "negligible," "acceptable," "tolerable," "in accordance with best (or even standard) practice," or "unavoidable." Many of these interpretations are equivalent to the legal meaning of "non-culpable" risks. The pragmatic interpretation that is invoked will depend on circumstances.

In spite of the fact that many experts and critics are aware of the dialectical character of safety, most public discussions reflect the belief that an objective condition of safety is obtainable with just a little more application and honest effort. When such expectations are disappointed, critics seek explanations in simplistic theories that usually involve misguided or malevolent parties. Academics are just as prone to this behaviour as others. An important recent example was the use of "cultural theory" by certain social scientists to explain why Americans apparently considered that environmental safety had declined during the 1970s despite considerable progress in pollution control. This explanation was based on a fourfold model of social psychological ideal types of people, in relation to their social groups. For example, environmentalists of all sorts were labelled "sectarians" and were said to possess a romantic cosmology that derived from the psychological contradictions of supposedly closed and egalitarian millenarian groups (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982). In our terms, Douglas and Wildavsky had become partially aware of the contradictions in the ideal of safety, and realized that it is not reducible to numbers. Yet they could not move on to accommodate the contradictions by means of practical measures for realizing safety in the face of real hazards (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1985).

The Seveso Directive provides an important and relevant example of the contradictory character of safety. Article 8 of the Directive is based on the assumption that openness on the part of firms and authorities is good for safety. Clearly, policies of concealment can be very bad for safety. But it is questionable that perfect openness leads to perfect safety. Let us consider what might have happened if the Seveso Directive had been in place in 1976; this is an imaginary, counterfactual case, which cannot be used for the logical proof of a thesis but which can be a useful heuristic device.

The Directive as a whole demands certain sorts of institutional behaviour, in return for which it provides a certification of quality of performance. In simple terms, if an installation meets the Directive's criteria it is deemed "safe." Suppose, now, that the Seveso regulations had been in force in July 1976. Then the ICMESA factory would have previously submitted its safety report and we suppose, further, that there would have been no objections to it. The local population and the authorities would have been provided with some information about the chemical processes and their hazards. Presumably, knowledge of the earlier accidents involving TCP would have been in the public domain. Also, there would have been some emergency procedures in place. Now, supposing that, in spite of all the available information, the explosion had still happened, what would have ensued? First, it is likely that there would not have been a delay of 10 days before dioxin was publicly identified, nor another 10 days lost before there was any clarity about what to do. Would it have helped the community response, for this information to have been known instantly?

There would doubtless have been a more speedy evacuation and, therefore, probably less exposure of the affected human population. But would there have been less trauma (Conti 1977; Edelstein 1988) resulting from the sight of dead and dying animals and from the evacuation, or less dread from the unknown consequences of the invisible poison, or less of a stigma associated with Seveso and its population and products (see Chronology, July 1977)? Probably not.

However, as we have remarked, it was the relatively successful recovery from the accident that enabled Seveso to become an uncomplicated symbol of successful response to industrial disasters. The contrast with Bhopal and Chernobyl is striking. Of course, there was an early period characterized by the recriminations and accusations of incompetence and cover-up that commonly afflict such victim communities. This aggravation reached its height about six months after the Seveso gas release, when little remedial work was under way and the regional government proposed to install an incinerator in the district. Since then there have been periods of lesser and greater tension, mainly associated with the use by others of Seveso as a symbol; but suspicions about the behaviour of the company and the authorities seem never to go away.

In the context of such heightened tensions, Seveso became a microcosm where all the existing conflicts within society (political, institutional, religious, industrial) were reflected. However, within a relatively short time such conflicts abated and the recovery of the community proceeded. For, in Seveso, blame was never at issue: the responsible party was known from the outset and soon offered reparation. Moreover, the eventual disappearance of the offending factory itself and the physical exportation of the toxic substances and polluted soil enabled the community to feel cleansed. The resolution of the emotional after-effects of the trauma, so necessary for the recovery of a community, was facilitated by these favourable circumstances.

All these achievements, which made Seveso a symbolic example of recovery from industrial disaster, depended on the construction of a working relationship between the community, the government agencies, and the firm. This was accomplished through open and sometimes bitter struggle among the various parties, but the common interest in a reasonable outcome was never in question. The victims knew that they would receive assistance. Had there been uncertainty and strife about the source, amount, and timing of compensation, the communities would not have been able to pull themselves together as they did within a year and a half, once the threat of malformed babies receded and evacuees were returned to their homes. Instead, we can imagine a permanent state of mistrust between the different governmental agencies and companies and, indeed, within the communities themselves, where the processes of recovery would have been seriously inhibited. Histories of recovery from other disasters, both natural and man-made, show how important are these factors in the political and moral spheres (Barton 1969; Erikson 1976; Couch and Kroll-Smith 1991).

Now we must ask, if a firm had already been in compliance with safety regulations of the kind later required by the Seveso Directive, would its response have been different? Suppose that a firm's legal advice was that its prior compliance with all regulations decreased its responsibility for the accident and hence its liability for compensation. It is a commonplace of the theory of regulation that the submission of firms to the financial costs of external regulation is compensated by the legal protection they receive for compliance.

All we need to imagine is a case where a firm's top management would have decided against total acquiescence in the picture of the disaster and its aftermath as presented by the local community and authorities. That would have been enough to slow down the reparations. But it was the unprecedented speed of compensation offers, along with acceptance of blame and contribution to rehabilitation, that made all the difference to the recovery of Seveso. Otherwise, there could have been the protracted litigation that occurs in so many such cases and which causes psychological and moral harm, ultimately inhibiting the healing processes of recovery.

Thus, we encounter a moral paradox illuminated by Seveso: more effective prior safety regulation could conceivably have prevented the achievement of the best path to the subsequent recovery of a community. Once an accident has occurred, the cleansing of resentment and guilt, which are experienced by agents and victims each in their own way, could be inhibited by a denial of moral liability. The paradox can be expressed as an ill effect of a good principle: prior regulation, with openness of information, could lead to a confusion concerning responsibility after the event. Such paradoxes are familiar to those managing hazards of various sorts in the insurance field; thus "moral hazard" refers to the tendency of people to take chances once they know that the insurers will pay; and the "no fault" principle for common accidents, while seeming to exculpate the responsible persons, is promoted as being useful in preventing the expenses and injustices of litigation.

A scientific paradox
Seveso also produced a paradox about the use of scientific knowledge in the policy process. Although there was undoubted physical and psychological illness among people, together with the deaths of many animals, dread consequences for human health have been elusive (Mastroiacovo et al. 1988; Regione Lombardia 1989; Mocarelli et al. 1991). In this respect it could be said that Seveso is a disaster that has not yet produced identifiable disastrous consequences. Even the most recent epidemiological results, while showing an increase in some sorts of rare cancers, do not provide firm evidence for a generally increased cancer risk to the monitored population (Bertazzi et al. 1993)

In the Seveso case, dread was associated with the perceived toxicity of dioxin. Once it was realized that the population had been subjected to dioxin contamination, the accident became, by definition, a disaster with severe psychological, social, and economic effects. However, in this case, scientific certainty about the extreme toxicity of dioxin gradually dissipated. No established scientists have argued that Seveso's population continues to suffer significant health effects.7 So the recent accusations (Chronology 1992, 1993) that dioxin was a component of the factory's production would, paradoxically again, amount to evidence that the substance was less toxic to humans than was initially believed.

A visitor to Seveso now finds a park where the factory once stood; some say that Seveso is now the least polluted place in Italy. Of course, the history of illness, dread, and disruption cannot be undone. But the recovery of the community proceeded smoothly; only the stigma of the town's name survives as a present source of harm. So Seveso has become, simultaneously, a symbol of an industrial disaster and a monument to relevant ignorance in science (Keynes 1921). But such ignorance is not absolute and it need not be paralysing for decision-making. At Seveso, monitoring continues, and the lessons of this relevant ignorance are being assimilated into our understanding of the place of science in the modern world.

Seveso now functions partly as an experiment, along with other monitored disaster sites such as Hiroshima. Data from the affected Seveso population are used as evidence in other, less straightforward, pollution cases and also for the ongoing review of regulations. Every experiment exists in a particular context, and inferences from its data depend on an assumption of similarity between the experimental setup and that of the other case in question (Funtowicz, MacGill, and Ravetz 1989a, 1989b, 1989c). The extent to which Seveso, with its single event of atmospheric contamination (and later contact with contaminated objects), is an appropriate model for situations of long and continuous contamination will be debated among scientists and policy makers.

Toxicology necessarily makes inferential leaps - from animals to humans, from large doses to small, and from acute to chronic doses. In turn, these inferences underlie the dose-response models that are used to define "safe limits." Thus, toxicological models have large inherent uncertainties, and large-scale accidents with good subsequent monitoring can provide less unrealistic sources of data (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1995).8

The very classic status of Seveso as a dioxin disaster could possibly lead to the use of its data in a paradoxical way. As we have seen, Seveso was an immediately perceived disaster, but one where the long-term health consequences have up to now been accepted as far from disastrous. We may be tempted to make a simple inference: Seveso was a harmless dioxin disaster; therefore, other dioxin releases need not be harmful. Such an argument was recently made in Arkansas, where the evidence of Seveso has been used in arguments supporting the safety of a proposed toxic waste incinerator that would emit dioxin in a similar quantity to that estimated for Seveso (Schneider 1992). Thus, we have the scientific paradox of Seveso: an event at first accepted as a disaster (with great consequences for regulatory policy) is now being used as evidence for safety.

The symbol of Seveso may now be becoming increasingly complex: its original connotation of dread is challenged by one of reassurance. Paradoxically, the excellence of the recovery of Seveso could be used for the assertion of limited liability, with possible consequences for litigation and impeded recovery elsewhere.

However, as scientists know, it needs only a single long-delayed pathological condition to appear in the monitoring process for the original negative resonance of Seveso to be restored. And then the recovery of Seveso, apparently so complete at this time, could suddenly be thrown into question. Even the complete absence of conclusive evidence of cancer among chloracne victims and others in the most exposed zone A might be explained in terms of "the small population size, youth of the subjects, and short follow-up period" (Bertazzi et al. 1993)

Industrial accidents, industrial society, and recovery
Since the 1970s, a number of serious industrial accidents have provoked a reappraisal of safety issues. First, it was realized that even apparently unique industrial disasters have regular causes; in one sense they are all "man-made" (Turner 1978) because of the way they occur through failure of systems for prevention. A more radical interpretation, derived from a study of Three Mile Island, is that they are actually "normal accidents" (Perrow 1984). The affected industries, while not planning such accidents, accept them as a normal aspect of operations. We can even consider industrial systems as "accident generating systems" (Haastrup and Funtowicz 1992), routinely producing unwanted outputs along with their intended products; these include continuous pollution and wastes, along with occasional incidents of different intensities. When an incident goes beyond a certain threshold (defined conventionally by the terms of relevant regulations) it is deemed to be an "accident," and some accidents eventually become disasters. But, as the Seveso case shows, even a "disaster" has strongly conventional elements in its definition and response (Susman, O'Keefe, and Wisner 1983; Quarantelli 1987). Thus, our comprehension of industrial risks has moved completely away from the acausal or "acts of God" approach; they are creations of the industrial system as much as its intended products.

This new awareness about industrial risks has coincided with an increasing concern for the perceived loss of environmental quality due to the synergistic effects of technological development and environmental processes, as in the cases of acid rain and global warming. We now appreciate that the technological system is global, complex, and rather tightly coupled. The dividing line between the "goods" and the "bads" produced by the system is sinuous and indistinct. Implementation of this ecological awareness in industrial and regulatory practice is now under way.

The new ecological awareness includes an appreciation not only of the interconnectedness of the effects of the "bads" of the industrial system but also of the conventional character of the traditional distinction between "manmade" and "natural." Industrial accidents, and recovery from them, cannot be seen in isolation from the pathologies of the total industrial system, itself a subsystem of the planet. Contradictions within that subsystem, and between it and other components of the total system, are the key to its comprehension. Thus, famine and floods (for example) may now be no different in kind from the sudden events called industrial accidents and disasters.

To understand the processes of recovery from such unwanted events we must conceive of them as occurring within that total system. In the case of industrial disasters, the recovery of a community takes place not only in the societal sphere but also in its moral dimensions and, equally importantly, in its ecological aspects as well. Thus, community recovery exists as part of a wider process, involving all the elements of the total ecosystem.

Seveso's recovery was dependent on the special character of the incident itself and especially on the response of the firm and the authorities. Seveso was especially fortunate, not merely because the damage occurred over a short time rather than a protracted period but also because the factory at Meda could be dispensed with. Other classic industrial disasters, such as Chernobyl and Bhopal, involved installations which, although themselves taken out of service, belong to a class that is kept in operation - even in the same locality. In such cases the hazard is chronic and there is no escape from the relevant pathologies of the industrial system.

Conclusion: "Seveso" - A paradoxical symbol
"Seveso" (the event as it has passed into myth) contains paradox and contradiction. At the outset, the dominating factor was dread, because of the possibility of economic and personal devastation caused by an unclean invisible agent - the dioxin that had defoliated Viet Nam. But, as the possibility of malformed babies subsided, dread gave way to a reassertion of community.

In spite of this local success, Seveso remained a symbol of calamity: the European Community Directive is known by it, and even the notifiable sites are informally named after it. Thus, the symbol remains potent, figuratively and legally, outside Seveso itself while, inside, the visible traces of the accident have been disappearing.

But, as the recovery continues, the paradoxes of Seveso provide new lessons for reflection about future policy. The moral paradox relates to the institutional aspects of the accident: had there been some regulatory framework, whereby the firm's liability for the accident could have been absolved, there is a chance that the firm's response would not have been so appropriate. The moral basis of recovery could then have been severely impaired and the subsequent history not so encouraging. However, if it turns out that the parent company was actually confessing to a lesser sin (an avoidable accident) in order to conceal a greater one (production of chemical weapons), then the paradoxes in the Seveso experience will have become very complex indeed.

The scientific paradox continues to have its effects, through uncertainty about the effects of dioxin. With the continued absence of conclusive evidence of illness, almost twenty years afterwards, the lesson of the Seveso disaster has been reversed. Now a   new message is conveyed by Seveso - one of reassurance that low-level dioxin contamination is, after all, innocuous. Of course, this optimism will last only as long as there is an absence of recorded health effects, and it is susceptible to modification in light of periodic reports from the ongoing monitoring programme.

It would be incorrect to interpret these paradoxes simplistically and then to write off Seveso as yet another notorious disaster that did not really happen. There is now a powerful reaction against the prophets of imminent ecological doom: apparent false alarms are being used as proof that our high-technology culture can absorb and recover from all sorts of disasters, industrial as well as natural.

An ecological awareness that connects industry with its environment societal as much as natural - teaches that "disaster" and "recovery" are each total events. It is no longer possible to "externalize" the costs of consumer society. The various traditional "sinks" have become finite and reactive. There is now nothing "outside" the global industrial system, which predominantly serves a fortunate fraction of the world's people. Seveso is truly a paradoxical and contradictory symbol; to interpret it simplistically, either for alarm or for reassurance, would be a serious error, for history and for policy.

We wish to thank the persons listed below for providing very useful insights, information, and materials regarding their participation in the Seveso case: C. Galbiati, L. Meazza, P. Mocarelli, L. Noè, F. Rocca, N. Sbrissa, R. Vannucci. Also R. Peckham of the JRC-Ispra for figure 4.2.

Saturday 10 July. In building B of the ICMESA factory located in Meda, an increase in pressure due to an exothermic reaction in the TCP vessel causes the rupture disk of the safety valve to burst. As a consequence, a toxic cloud escapes into the air.

Sunday 11 July (accident day + 1). ICMESA managers inform local authorities of the escape of a "cloud of herbicide that causes harm to agriculture" (Ufficio speciale... 1984). They state that "in all likelihood the aerosol mixture which escaped consists of sodium trichlorphenate, caustic soda and solvent, but possibly other toxic substances as well" (Roche Magazin 1986) and they request the authorities to warn the population. Samples are sent by courier for examination in Switzerland.

12 July (+2)
Nearby residents are warned not to eat any vegetables from their gardens.

14 July (+4)
First symptoms on skin of children, and deaths of small animals. According to Roche (Roche Magazin 1986: 10), Dr. Sambeth, the Technical Director of Givaudan in Geneva, informs von Zwehl, the Technical Director of ICMESA, that the samples contain traces of TCDD. Authorities will be informed only much later.

15 July (+5)
The factory workers are examined by the factory doctor. The Mayor of Seveso issues "Ordinanza 43," on the basis of indications by the Deputy Health Officer, declaring as contaminated the area to the south of the ICMESA factory (about 12 hectares and 200 residents). Warning signs and fences are to be erected. The Mayor of Meda issues a similar decree. Dr. Giuseppe Reggiani, Director of Clinical Research at Roche Basle, is instructed by the management of Roche to investigate the possible effects of the accident on workers and population and to take necessary measures. During a first meeting in the Municipio (Town Hall), ICMESA managers show maps, but are generally reticent.

16 July (+6)
Increasing skin reactions: 13 children hospitalized. The LPIP (Laboratorio provinciale di igiene e profilassi) begins to collect vegetable samples for analysis. The Mayor of Seveso informs Il Giorno, a national newspaper. During a meeting in the Municipio, the ICMESA managers show new maps, indicating concentrations which they judge below the danger threshold for humans (Rocca 1980). They claim ignorance of the substance involved. Factory workers mobilize and accuse authorities of hiding facts. The local prefecture (representing the national government) is called in by the Mayor; they support his actions.

17 July (+7)
First articles in the national press based in Milan (Il Giorno, Corriere della Sera). According to Roche accounts, the ICMESA Technical Director announces the release of dioxin (Roche Magazin 1986: 12). According to other sources, this information was delivered a few days later (see below, Pocchiari, Silano, and Zapponi 1987).

18 July (+8)
The investigating magistrates seal building B of ICMESA, where the accident occurred. The Mayor of Meda orders that all other buildings are sealed as well. First news of the accident on television.

19 July (+9)
For the first time, Givaudan admits that TCDD was found, in notification to local authorities (Pocchiari, Silano, and Zapponi 1987).

20 July (+10)
In Geneva, Givaudan makes a public statement on the accident and the Givaudan chemists confirm, to the public health doctors caring for the children, that TCDD was found; they send a map showing where dioxin was found. The Mayor of Seveso hears for the first time that dioxin may be involved. This comes from a television journalist who was informed by a doctor at a research institute in Milan. In the evening this was confirmed by the Health Officer, who had gone to Zurich to get information. He decides not to release this information at the meeting that same evening in the Municipio (Rocca 1980).

21 July (+11)
Banner headlines in the newspapers. The Technical Director and the Director of Production of ICMESA are arrested. The public health doctors inform the prefecture of Milan, who call a meeting with the Regional Health Department for 24 July. According to Roche Magazin (1986: 12), Dr. Reggiani contacts other companies that had accidents with dioxin and recommends evacuation to the Italian authorities. The Head of the Regional Health Department is reluctant. First official press release from the Lombardy Region. The Milan Province offers assistance; subsequently they are put in charge of decontamination.

22 July (+12)
Eighty children from Seveso are sent away to a holiday camp belonging to the province. A census of all dead animals is ordered. A dermatological clinic is opened in Seveso to monitor exposed people.

23 July (+13)
Dr. Reggiani has the first meeting with the authorities, including the Head of the Regional Health Department. With the Mayor of Seveso, he insists on an evacuation (Roche Magazin 1986: 12). For the first time, the mayors of Desio and Cesano Maderno are involved (Rocca 1980).

24 July (third week)
First meeting at the Lombardy regional government office, chaired by the Head of the Regional Health Department, with experts, civil servants, and scientists of the Region, along with those of the LPIP, the national Ministry of Health, the ISS (Istituto Superiore della Sanità), and a representative of Givaudan. The so-called zone A (more than 50 micrograms of TCDD per square metre), about 15 hectares, was defined for evacuation, fencing-off, and prohibited entry. (Later, zone A was further divided into seven subzones according to the severity of contamination. The evacuated people often violated the zone, and on two occasions, in October and December, reoccupied their homes.) First public meeting.

26 July
Local authorities with the aid of armed forces accomplish the evacuation of 225 people (170 from Seveso, 55 from Meda). Following new laboratory results, it was decided to extend the evacuation zone, enlarging the area to 71.8 hectares. Approximately 3,300 animals died. Many others will eventually be slaughtered, a total of 81,000.

28 July
The Regional Health Department establishes four committees of scientific and technical experts to investigate different aspects of the accident. Their tasks are to define health problems and define measures for protection of public health; to define procedures for data, sampling, and interpretation; to study decontamination measures; and to investigate causes of animal deaths.

29 July
The contamination zone is further extended to 108 hectares and a total of 730 people are evacuated; 198 families are temporarily housed in two "residences" in the suburbs of Milan and in hotels and private houses in the vicinity of the affected area.

2 August (fourth week)
Following further tests, a second zone (B) is defined (between 5 and 50 micrograms per square metre), comprising about 270 hectares in the municipalities of Cesano Maderno and Desio. Regional authorities decree that children under 12 and pregnant women within the third month should not stay in the affected area during the day. Strict rules are issued on food and water consumption. All productive activities are suspended in zone B. Health authorities give consent to abortion, in spite of its illegality at the time. Therapeutic abortion was allowed in special cases, including pregnancies that would be psychologically traumatic for the mother, following the judgement of the Constitutional Court no. 27 of 18 February 1975. (This case was later used politically in the debate that resulted in the law 194 of 1988, which legalized abortion, later confirmed by a popular referendum in 1981.)

4 August
The President of the Italian Council of Ministers nominates a governmental technical-scientific commission, to explore possible decontamination measures. It will be known as "Commissione Cimmino," after its Chairman.

5 August
First regional legislation to aid the affected population.

10 August (second month)
The Italian government grants a loan of 40 billion liras to the region to finance necessary measures (it was raised to 115 billion in 1978).

11 August
In a press conference in Geneva, Roche commits itself to cover the costs of the damage.

13 August
The regional government sets up the Giovanardi Commission, which is to implement the proposals of the national Cimmino Commission.

14 August
The Cimmino Commission recommends the establishment of a third zone (R; 1400 hectares), where levels of contamination are below 5 micrograms per square metre.

15 August
The Regional Health Department completes the mapping of the affected zones. The epidemiological monitoring was extended to five more municipalities (Lentate sul Seveso, Seregno, Varedo, Muggiò, Nova Milanese), for a total of 220,000 inhabitants. First cases of chloracne (there would eventually be 193, some very serious, taking years to clear, with permanent scars).

Several measures for decontamination are suggested and attempted (e.g. spreading of olive oil preparations on contaminated lots). The region studies the possibility of constructing a high-temperature incinerator in the area. The affected communities react angrily: the region joins Givaudan as the enemies to be fought by local residents. An agreement is reached between Lombardy and Givaudan for removal and disposal of chemicals and raw materials from the factory. The ICMESA workers are re-employed in the area.

January 1977 (six months after disaster)
Decontamination work begun, to enable resumption of productive activities: removal of leaves, grass, and agricultural produce. Decontamination of schools. Hydrological studies; studies of incineration plant. Experimental studies for rehabilitation of buildings in zones furthest from ICMESA. Holidays and financial aid for special classes: children, pregnant women, elderly people.

First compensation payments made by ICMESA to private individuals.

Public protest about unorthodox methods of cleaning adopted by Milan Province; much pressure on President of province (Rocca 1980).

The region sets up the Ufficio Speciale di Seveso (Special Bureau for Seveso), located first in Seveso, then in Milan. It is responsible for putting the five action programmes into practice. (Closed in 1987, archive established in 1992.)

July (one year after disaster)
Official promulgation of special legislation for Seveso (Regione Lombardia 1977), articulating five operational programmes: (1) analysis of soil, water, and vegetation plus measures for reclamation; (2) aid and medical monitoring programmes in the health sector; (3) social and educational aid; (4) rehabilitation of buildings; (5) aid for trade and industry.

Epidemiological monitoring programmes established as follows (with termination dates): abortions (1982); malformations (1982); tumours (1997); deaths (1997). Health monitoring of workers at ICMESA and on decontamination projects, and chloracne sufferers (1985). Laboratory research undertaken, to improve knowledge of metabolic and toxic effects, for later development of health monitoring programmes. Ghetti, Head of the Seveso Health Department, shot in the legs in a terrorist attack.

International Steering Committee established to assess toxicological and epidemiological data and findings of the monitoring programme. This was officially named "comitato dei garanti," as it represented international scientific authority and probity. Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry established.

Decontamination of zone A; return of first 511 evacuated persons. Decision to demolish most heavily contaminated houses and to rebuild. Start of decontamination of zone B

July 1978 (two years after disaster)
Report by Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry, criticizing ICMESA and regional authorities. Settlements of private claims, the majority amicably, out of court.

Decontamination continues. Zone R released for agricultural use. After long negotiations, an agreement between ICMESA, the Italian Government, and the Lombardy Region on the settlement of claims is signed. Poletti, the Director of Production at ICMESA at the time of the accident, is shot and killed in a terrorist attack. Disposal site in zone A approved by the Cimino Committee.

1981 (five years after disaster)
Out-of-court settlement with the municipalities of Desio and Cesano Maderno: ICMESA pays 1.45 and 2.85 billion liras, respectively. Preparation of plan for disposal of contaminated building B of ICMESA by ENEA (Italian state energy agency).

June 1982
Start of the mystery of the lost barrels of contaminated materials. According to Roche Magazin (1986: 18), they were eventually discovered in a barn in France.

Reactor where explosion occurred, emptied. Out-of-court settlement with Meda (ICMESA pays 1.3 billion liras).

Out-of-court settlement with Seveso (ICMESA pays 15 billion liras).

Health Report of the International Steering Committee: no human effects other than 193 cases of chloracne. Decontamination of zone A totally completed; zone B authorized for construction. Incineration of barrels begins in Switzerland; in the following year, officially said to be completed (see December 1992).

Court of Appeals in Milan confirms criminal convictions of two of the five accused - the Director of ICMESA and the Technical Director of Givaudan. Demolition of the ICMESA premises, converted to a public park and community facilities.

September 1991 (15 years after disaster)
The newspaper La Repubblica (1991) reports a judgement by the civil court of Milan, requiring Givaudan to pay 2 million lira to each of 21 inhabitants of the zones B and R. for their material and psychological injuries. The plaintiffs belonged to a committee called "5d," composed of 300 citizens who were initially excluded by the courts from the civil suit for damages because they had not suffered material harm. They were disappointed by the amount awarded and will appeal. But they are satisfied by the court's acceptance of the principle that any exposed person is potentially entitled to damages. The court's judgement states: "The exposure to an unknown quantity of dioxin, the restrictions on liberty of actions and of life, the oppressive public-health measures, all constitute causes for disturbance and moral damage." Their advocate had argued that they had suffered inconvenience and distress caused by the discrimination they had experienced merely because they were from Seveso.

December 1992
The newspaper Il Corriere della Sera (1992) reports on a documentary on German television channel "Ard." They spoke of 150 tons (336,000 lb) of dioxincontaminated material that had been put in a dump in Schoenberg, in the former East Germany, by the Italian firm Mannesmann, and which were described in the documents as "sodium chloride," or salt. According to the German television programme, the supposed destruction in Switzerland was only a diversion. The region of Mecklenburgh-Pomerania, where Schoenberg is located, has started an enquiry, requesting the participation of the Italian and French authorities.

March 1993
The newspaper Il Corriere della Sera (Magni 1993) reports that 850 citizens of the contaminated area have started legal procedures against Givaudan in order to be compensated for "moral and biological" damage.

On the initiative of the regional Director for the Environment, the Lombardy regional government nominates a Commission of Enquiry, with powers to re-examine the Seveso archives, with special reference to three issues. The first is the amount of dioxin released: it was generally accepted that some 200-300 grams were emitted, but even at the time some experts spoke of much higher quantities, even 40 kg or more. The second point concerns the 41 barrels: the official story that they had been burned in Basle has been questioned by the discovery of a stock of similar barrels in a site in Schoenberg. Third, what was ICMESA really producing? This question may be very difficult to answer.

undconstr.gif (3161 bytes)

This section is under construction, if you have any relevant information please email us at sambavna@bom6.vsnl.net.in

[Main Menu]