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Seveso: an industrial accident that raised awareness

There is a real consciousness of the need to manage industrial risks. But the practical decisions taken are not always sufficient. The Seveso disaster was the wake-up call that made European countries aware of the need to improve the management and control of industrial risks. It led to the adoption of two EU directives known as the Seveso directives.

In 1976, an accident in a factory producing herbicides and antiseptics resulted in the contamination of the Seveso region in Italy and the poisoning not only of the factory workers but also of the local population in general.

The health consequences of the exposure to the dioxin released into the atmosphere have been closely studied. Chloracne was the first and only short-term contamination marker. However, 20 years after the event, an excessively high death rate from cancer among people who were present at the time of the accident has been observed in the most contaminated area: the overall risk of dying from cancer is around 1.6 times higher, and it is 5 times higher for cancers of the haematopoietic and lymph systems. Hormonal disorders have also been noted, particularly in men exposed before and during puberty.

The Seveso accident gave its name to EU legislation on the prevention of major risks associated with hazardous substances, which continues to be updated in the light of new accidents.

Adequate health protection decisions still remain to be taken, in the face of pressure from influential economic interests.

©Prescrire September 2009

Source: "Seveso 1976, un accident industriel et une prise de conscience" Rev Prescrire 2009 ; 29 (310) : 602-605.

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