Seveso luck

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The Seveso disaster ([ sɛvezo ]) was a chemical spill that on 10 July 1976 in the chemical factory located Icmesa Italian Meda , 20 kilometers north of Milan , occurred. Icmesa was a subsidiary of Givaudan , which in turn was a subsidiary of Roche . The company premises touched the area of ​​four municipalities, among them Seveso , which was named after the accident. Here, an unknown quantity of highly toxic was dioxin TCDD released, which colloquially dioxin or Sevesois called. The accident, together with similar accidents, led to today's Directive 2012/18 / EU (Seveso III Directive) .

History of the accident

Hexachlorophene was produced at Icmesa in Meda, Italy. Production increased steadily until the summer of 1976. The working conditions in TCP production were poor, the system was out of date and poorly maintained. Jörg Sambeth, technical director of the parent company, later described the factory as "totally wasted" ; Obviously, for years they had not invested anything, they just wanted to earn as much money as possible. The workers were exposed to high health risks and insufficiently trained. One worker later reported the following:

"If a lightbulb in the lighting system in our department was broken, you first had to let out steam under pressure to remove the poisonous clouds of smoke that constantly gathered under the roof, before one of us could change the lightbulb with a ladder."

In addition, the workforce, which at the time of the accident comprised 163 employees, had to constantly change departments and was unable to properly familiarize themselves with and gain experience.

Some residents also complained of odor nuisance and health problems.

Chemical background

2,4,5-Trichlorophenol (TCP, in the middle), a precursor for the disinfectant hexachlorophene , is made from the raw material 1,2,4,5-tetrachlorobenzene (left) by adding sodium hydroxide (NaOH):

Reaction sequence

This produces 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD for short) as a by-product, especially at elevated temperatures , on the right.

Chronology of the accident

On Friday afternoon, July 9th, Jörg Sambeth, who as Givaudan's technical director was also responsible for Icmesa, discussed the plan for the coming week with the foremen of the TCP production department. In Building B on the factory premises, trichlorophenol was to be produced as usual. For this purpose, the charging and heating of the reaction vessel 101 began at 4 p.m. on the same day , so that the reactor began to work towards evening. On Saturday, July 10th at 2:30 a.m., according to the temperature diagram, the reaction of the boiler contents was over. The night shift ended at 6 a.m. and an operator switched off the agitator in autoclave 101 as planned. The temperature of 158 ° C measured at this point in time led to a build-up of heat due to the lack of reallocation of the boiler contents. The maintenance and cleaning staff in building B noticed nothing of the impending disaster. It is not known what safety precautions have been taken in the event of heat build-up.

The chemical reaction began slowly around 12:30 p.m., then with a rapid rise in pressure and temperature, and finally ended in an explosion (“ thermal runaway ”): at 12:37 p.m., a safety valve triggered due to excess pressure and boiler 101 discharged into the environment via a blow-off station. There was no collection reservoir. It was blown off for over half an hour. An unknown amount of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin - also called "dioxin" - was released into the environment. The spreading poison cloud drifted southeast and poisoned a 1 km × 6 km, densely populated area of ​​the municipalities of Seveso , Meda, Desio and Cesano Maderno.

Skilled personnel did not arrive until 1:45 p.m. and were able to shut down the reactor to an uncritical temperature. At this point 1,800 hectares of land had been poisoned for years.


Work continued in the plant on Monday, only department B was at a standstill. In the days that followed, the leaves of plants in the area withered and withered, and 3,300 animal carcasses were found. The high number of animal sacrifices is explained by the fact that they ate from the poisoned pastures and from the rest of the natural world. Authorities closed the Seveso swimming pool on Wednesday. Local residents were told to destroy all fruit and vegetables in their gardens - they weren't told why. Fourteen children with chloracne were hospitalized on Thursday , but doctors did not know how to treat them. A total of 200 people developed severe chloracne. On the Saturday of the week after the accident, Icmesa workers went on a wildcat strike and public pressure increased. Authorities reacted late and did not close the factory until July 17.

Although the plant management already knew on the first day after the accident that TCDD had been released, they did not officially announce it until eight days later, as the technical director later testified to the investigative committee. The parent company Roche was informed internally of the accident and the substance released on July 12, but was also not made public. Hans Fehr - the then press spokesman for Roche - described the first crisis meeting on July 15 in his autobiography Impressions as follows:

"Dr. Hartmann (Vice Director of Roche, Ed.), Completely colonel at the front, stormed the scene, followed by Givaudan's chief chemist, Dr. Sambeth. It's good that you are here. First of all, the matter is being held in the closest circle of Icmesa; Givaudan and Roche are not mentioned. Second: The fact that it happened during the production of hexachlorophene [...] is not mentioned. Third, there is no mention of the formation of TCDD. All right? "

- Hans Fehr : The weekly newspaper

Samples from the factory premises and the surrounding area were collected and examined. Independent Italian chemists found TCDD in the samples in chemical analyzes on July 23. They made a map of the spread of the substance.

Roche boss Adolf Jann commented on the first victims as follows:

“The woman who sadly died suffered from asthma. The boy who was admitted to the hospital with liver damage had jaundice. Both cases have nothing to do with the Icmesa. "

- Adolf Jann : The weekly newspaper

On July 26th, 208 residents left the poisoned area. The eviction was officially ordered and the endangered area was militarily cordoned off. Armed soldiers, some wearing heavy protective suits and gas masks, patrolled the streets. Another 500 people were evacuated on August 2 after even more shocking analysis results were received. The Roche company convened its crisis management team. Health officials advised pregnant women to have an abortion .

Together with the Roche Group Management, the Italian government tried to work out a decontamination plan for the contaminated area. However, this led to proposals, some of which were absurd. Roche undertook to pay for all damage and decontamination work.

The first detoxification work began in the fall of 1976. First of all, poisoned leaves were collected and buildings treated with special soap solutions, if detoxification was possible at all. Exact soil analyzes should clarify how badly the soil was poisoned and whether the groundwater was possibly endangered. The first decontamination measures had been completed by the summer of 1977. Some businesses and schools were usable again. However, many buildings were so badly poisoned that the only option was to demolish them. The inner zone around the factory remained closed. The soil in this zone had to be partially removed. By the end of 1977, a total of 511 people were able to move into their houses again.

In July 1978, the last of the chemicals - except for those in Building B - were removed. The decontamination measures in the core zone did not begin until the spring of 1980. For this purpose, a pit with a capacity of 85,000 cubic meters was dug at the factory. This pit was lined with thick welded plastic sheets. The pit should safely contain poisoned earth, construction debris, and scrap.

Meanwhile, on February 2, 1980, Paolo Paoletti - production manager at Icmesa - was shot dead in Monza by a member of the Italian left-wing extremist terrorist organization Prima Linea .

The dismantling and demolition work began in the factory itself. Building B with the emergency boiler was not touched for safety reasons. At the beginning of 1982 the Italian authorities commissioned Mannesmann Italiana with the disposal of the reactor contents. Another pit with a capacity of 160,000 cubic meters was dug in May 1982 to dispose of rubble from demolished buildings and contaminated soil.

In the summer of 1982 - six years after the accident - the reactor in Building B was opened. The remaining pipes, tanks and units were dismantled. The workers wore heavy protective suits. Finally, the reactor vessel 101 was emptied and the highly toxic contents were poured into 41 steel drums. These steel drums were also given an outer packaging. The emptying took place under the strictest security precautions and video surveillance. The workers' spacesuit-like outfits were supplied with fresh air from the outside and the working hours at the reactor were precisely regulated.

So far, no human deaths could be directly attributed to the accident. Depending on the examination, individual rare types of cancer are somewhat more common than expected - an effect which, however, levels out when averaged over all types of cancer. Various studies have been carried out on long-term effects, including by Pierre A. Bertazzi and his colleagues at the University of Milan (Milano):

“One study showed a complete reversal of the relationship between the sexes. Although there is a general ratio of 106 men to 100 women in the population, in Seveso this is 48 women to 26 men (note that this corresponds to a ratio of 54.2 men to 100 women). This indicates a major change in hormonal metabolism. "

- Pierre A. Bertazzi :

Judgments and Compensation

On September 24, 1983, a court in Monza sentenced five employees in the first instance to imprisonment from two and a half to five years. All convicts appealed . The court decided on negligence instead of intent and suspended the sentences of production manager Jörg Sambeth, who was silent for his company at the time, and the Swiss and Italian defendants on probation. According to Sambeth, kickbacks and covert relationships were involved.

From 1981 to 1983 Icmesa compensated the affected municipalities Desio (with 748,900 euros), Cesano Maderno (1.47 million euros), Meda (671,400 euros) and Seveso (7.75 million euros) in out-of-court settlements. In 1993, 850 citizens from the poisoned areas sued Givaudan for compensation for the moral and biological damage they had suffered.

Inconsistencies and criticism

On September 10, 1982, the barrels with the reactor contents were transported away by truck. The trucks drove towards France ; from St. Quentin their trail was lost. When the French press found out about the "loss" of the barrels, a public scandal broke out . A desperate search for the poison barrels began. The barrels were suspected to be in all possible and impossible places. After a request from the French Ministry of the Environment to the German Ministry of the Interior , the barrels were searched for in all landfills in West Germany. Some even suspected the barrels to be in the GDR . After an unsuccessful search, the German federal government commissioned Werner Mauss to research the whereabouts of the barrels. On May 19, 1983, the barrels were finally found in a former slaughterhouse in the northern French village of Anguilcourt-le-Sart and taken to the French barracks in Sissonne . The Swiss government gave Roche permission to store the barrels in Basel , where they arrived on June 4th.

In April 1984 all decontamination work in Seveso was completed. A park and a sports field were created on the site of the demolished Icmesa. After two successful test burns, the contents of the reactor were allegedly burned in Basel from June 17 to 21, 1985. But in October 1993 the German television journalist and physicist Ekkehard Sieker claimed that the reactor contents had not been burned, but had been disposed of in the Schönberg landfill in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania . What was explosive was that the barrels that arrived in Basel were said to have been much heavier than those originally filled in Seveso. A commission of inquiry was set up, but it was dissolved; According to Sieker, the documents submitted by Roche were incomplete. In his report, The Secret of Seveso , Sieker claims that dioxin was not an undesirable by-product in the Icmesa plant, but that it was secretly produced for military purposes on weekends. According to the Seveso documentary Gambit from 2005, the technical director Jörg Sambeth could not confirm this, but considered it technically possible. Sambeth suspected that the defoliant Agent Orange , used in the Vietnam War , for which trichlorophenol is a raw material, should be produced in the event of a military need . At the time of the accident, Icmesa was the only factory in the world still producing trichlorophenol.

Jörg Sambeth, who screened the film Gambit in the Seveso cinema in December 2005 , was the first person in charge to apologize to those affected.

See also


  • John G. Fuller: The poison that fell from the sky . Random House, New York 1977.
  • Peter Voswinckel: The Seveso Case. Short version of a seminar lecture with pictures, seminar on environmental problems with special consideration of radiation exposure, University of Münster, WS 76/77. Institute for Radiation Biology . Klartext, Bremen 1977, DNB 800158555 .
  • Egmont R. Koch , Fritz Vahrenholt : Seveso is everywhere - the deadly risks of chemistry . Foreword by Erhard Eppler . Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 1978, ISBN 3-462-01290-8 .
  • Verband der Chemischen Industrie (Hrsg.): Seveso is not everywhere - Chemical industry to the book 'Seveso is everywhere , Frankfurt am Main 1978, DNB 790542382 .
  • Birgit Kraatz: Seveso or how responsibility becomes a farce: a lesson from which large-scale chemistry has learned nothing . Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1979, ISBN 3-499-14349-6 .
  • Poison over Seveso: Chapters from the devil's poison kitchens . Military Publishing House of the GDR, 1985, pages 249–298.
  • Seveso - 20 years later . Information brochure Roche. 1996.
  • Seveso - 30 years after . Publication by Hoffmann La Roche, 2006 (German); ( Seveso - 30 Years After (English) ( Memento from December 31, 2006 in the Internet Archive ); PDF; 78 kB)
  • Jörg Sambeth: Incident in Seveso. A factual novel . Unionsverlag, Zurich 2004, ISBN 3-293-00329-X .
  • Matthias Hofmann: Learning from disasters. After the accidents in Harrisburg, Seveso and Sandoz , Edition Sigma , Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-89404-559-3 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b c P. A. Bertazzi, I. Bernucci, G. Brambilla, D. Consonni, AC Pesatori: The Seveso studies on early and long-term effects of dioxin exposure: a review . In: Environmental Health Perspectives . tape 106 , Suppl 2, 1998, pp. 625–633 , PMID 9599710 , PMC 1533388 (free full text) - (There have been numerous attempts to estimate the amount released, which contradict each other strongly. The figures range from a few hundred grams to over 34 kilograms.)
  2. Directive 2012/18 / EU (Seveso III Directive)
  3. a b c "I was absolutely stupid" ( taz interview with Jörg Sambeth, July 10, 2006)
  4. Ch. Häckl: Our century in the picture / The great catastrophes and accidents . Chronik-Verlag, Gütersloh, 1997.
  5. a b Susan Boos: A Boss Who Played God. In: The weekly newspaper of July 15, 2004.
  6. ^ Kölner Rück: Loss & Litigation Report ( Memento from September 1, 2007 in the Internet Archive ): Umwelt-Schadenfalls, 2003.
  7. Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduktion AG Zurich / mrks ch-professional web work: Gambit. Retrieved July 2, 2021 .

Coordinates: 45 ° 39 ′ 14.6 ″  N , 9 ° 8 ′ 53.8 ″  E