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close this bookThe Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disasters (UNU, 1996, 307 p.)
close this folder4 Seveso: A paradoxical classic disaster
close this folderOverview
View the documentThe chemical release
View the documentDioxin
View the documentThe Seveso Directive


The Seveso experience was essentially about dread - an emotion mobilized by involvement of the chemical dioxin. Dioxin first came to widespread public notice during the Viet Nam War, when it was identified as a component of the defoliant Agent Orange (Hay 1982). Previously, campaigns on behalf of agricultural and forestry workers had been mounted to have TCP banned because of its alleged toxic effects on humans. These frequently met with scientific disapproval, partly because the evidence was only "anecdotal." The United Kingdom's regulatory system was particularly unsympathetic to such claims (Wynne 1989).

Before the Seveso release, several industrial accidents involving TCP were known to have occurred. Among others, these affected the following firms and countries:

· 1949 Monsanto (USA);
· 1953 BASF (Germany);
· 1960 Dow Chemical (USA);
· 1963 Phillips Duphar (Netherlands);
· 1968 Coalite Chemical Productions (UK).

These accidents precipitated acute illness among affected workers and added to the burden of existing chronic sickness caused by prolonged exposure to the same chemicals under unsanitary conditions (Hay 1982: 138140). After the BASF accident, production of TCP was stopped at that site. The same occurred at Phillips Duphar, where the plant was closed and subsequently dismantled; its pieces were swathed in concrete and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean. Similar procedures were adopted at the Coalite site near Bolsover. After the Dow Chemical accident, new installations were constructed there. The reactor was enclosed by a supplemental safety vessel, whose purpose was to collect and cool any toxic material that might leak if reactor valves ruptured (Otway and Amendola 1989). Similar "containment vessels" have been widely employed in nuclear power stations that house pressurized water-cooled reactors. Had there been such a vessel at ICMESA, there would probably have been no Seveso disaster.

Dioxin was known to be an extremely dangerous substance, partly because of these industrial experiences and partly because experimental evidence indicated that it was unprecedentedly toxic to some species of laboratory animals. In many ways the image of dioxin was similar to that of radioactivity: it was invisible, it poisoned at microscopic dose levels, and it was implicated in war. Moreover, because dioxin was carried by people and things, it took on the appearance of a dread disease - a plague. In particular, it was the sense of being gravely contaminated that increased personal, social, and economic distress among the affected population. Products of dioxin-impacted areas were rejected because of feared contamination, thus imposing a stigma on whole communities.