Cover Image
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 chemical release

Around midday on Saturday 10 July 1976, an explosion occurred in a TCP (2,4,5-trichlorophenol) reactor of the ICMESA chemical plant on the outskirts of Meda, a small town about 20 kilometres north of Milan, Italy.1 A toxic cloud containing TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin), then widely believed to be one of the most toxic man-made chemicals (Mocarelli et al. 1991), was accidentally released into the atmosphere. The dioxin cloud contaminated a densely populated area about six kilometres long and one kilometre wide, lying downwind from the site (fig. 4.1). This event became internationally known as the Seveso disaster, after the name of a neighbouring municipality that was most severely affected (Hay 1982; Pocchiari, Silano, and Zapponi 1987).

Fig. 4.1 Area affected by the Seveso dioxin release (Source: Roche Magazin 1986)

Eleven communities in the rolling countryside between Milan and Lake Como were directly involved in the toxic release and its aftermath. The four most impacted municipalities included Seveso (1976 population 17,000), Meda (19,000), Desio (33,000), and Cesano Maderno (34,000). Two other municipalities were subject to postaccident restrictions: Barlassina (6,000) and Bovisio Masciago (11,000). Health monitoring was extended to a further five municipalities. The entire affected area is part of the Brianza, a prosperous district of Lombardy, itself one of the wealthiest and most industrialized regions of Italy (fig. 4.2). Though originally agricultural, the economy of this area depended on a cluster of small workshops and industries, mainly engaged in manufacturing furniture.

The Seveso disaster had a particularly traumatic effect on exposed local populations because its seriousness was recognized only gradually. The community was divided by rancorous conflicts. People in other countries also experienced much heightened concern about industrial risks and the need for tighter regulation of hazardous chemical installations. In these respects Seveso resembled Bhopal (1984) and Chernobyl (1986), which have both come to be regarded as international symbols of industrial pathology.

Fig. 4.2 Location of Seveso

But as we shall see, Seveso is a paradoxical symbol, because human health effects of the disaster have been obscure and the process of recovery has been unusual. Victims have been compensated, workers have been redeployed, a substantial programme of long-term health monitoring is in operation, and the site itself has been made into a park. Though initially slow and conflicted, responses to the accident may eventually have showed high-technology society working at its best. Recovery was therefore a process of overcoming initial traumas (e.g. chloracne, fear of genetic impairments, evacuation, animal deaths) and re-establishing customary patterns of societal, economic, and institutional life.

For some, the main lesson of Seveso might be that a reasonably prompt, effective, and generous response by public and private agencies is the key to community recovery. But, to a significant degree, local recovery was achieved by exporting parts of the problem. Seriously contaminated materials were disposed of abroad in an atmosphere of confusion and scandal; their ultimate fate is still unravelling (Gambino, Gumpel, and Novelli 1993; see also Chronology items December 1992 and November 1993). This, too, is part of the style of high-technology industry: consumer satisfaction is often sustained by "externalizing" environmental costs and attendant social problems. In other words, the burdens of technology are often transferred away from producers and immediate consumers into a universally shared but unprotected natural environment or into specific poor communities (local or overseas) that are treated as sweatshops and dumps.2