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Deadly cloud over Seveso
On July 10, we observe the 40th anniversary of an explosion at a northern Italian chemical plant on the outskirts of a town called Meda. It went down in history as the “Seveso disaster,” which lent its name to the EU industrial safety regulations now known as the Seveso II Directive.
Today, if people hear the name, they either connect it with these positive changes to industrial policies or to the horrific disaster, named Seveso after the most affected municipality. What happened?
Around midday, the explosion occurred in the reactor of the ICMESA chemical plant. It led to a release of a toxic cloud containing TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin), one of the most toxic man-made chemicals (it was a significant contaminant in Agent Orange.)
Seveso had a population of 17,000 in 1976. They did not think of this plant as a source of risk nor did they know about the kind of chemicals being produced there. All that changed on July 10, when they were exposed to the highest known exposure of humans to dioxin. First, animals began to die. Around 3,300 in the first few days! It was four days before people began to feel the effects too — including "nausea, blurred vision and, especially among children, skin sores known as chloracne" — and, shockingly, this was weeks before the town itself was evacuated.
In this aspect, Seveso resembles Bhopal. But the mobilization and reaction of officials after the event was diametrically opposed. People were compensated, workers redeployed, the site cleaned, 80,000 animals slaughtered to prevent contamination of the food chain and the soil was decontaminated. The site has been turned into a public oak forest park.
In Bhopal, people died. In the Seveso disaster, no one died, but there were victims. Many people, most of them children, were affected by chloracne.
Let's hope that the responsibility of companies, public awareness as well as rules and legislation such as the Seveso Directive will prevent disasters like this from happening and help HSE professionals to deal with them in case they occur.
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