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Explosion destroys the environment

(September 1976)

From Militant, No. 333, 3 September 1976, p. 4.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The explosion that occurred at the Swiss-owned Icmesa plant in Seveso in Northern Italy on Saturday 10th July was no ordinary explosion. For it released into the atmosphere one of the most toxic chemicals ever developed by man, the deadly dioxin for which no antidote exists.

Within days of the explosion rashes begin to appear on the skins of babies and small children followed by acute diarrhoea and intense vomiting. People began suffering from headaches, violent sweating and experiencing pains in the kidneys and liver. Two weeks later two women died; and the whole area was sealed off and the population evacuated. When an ultimate check of the bodies, deformed babies and diseases is made, perhaps someone will ask the question, “why is dioxin made at all?”

This horrific incident, sounding as if it were taken directly out of the pages of a science fiction story, is not only indicative of the blatant disregard of the environment by huge profit-conscious monopolies but also if left unchecked threatens the ultimate destruction of man.

The same could be said of science as a whole. Seveso is only the latest example of the perversion of science and technique by capitalist society. Where profit is the prime motive catastrophes like Seveso are inevitable.

Dioxin is produced during the synthesis of tricholorophenol. This is used in the manufacture of two chemicals. One of the chemicals, a bactericide, was used as a wash for treating acne, in soaps, surgical swabs, and as antiseptic in hospital nurseries. But in the late 1960s, evidence began to accumulate linking its use with internal and brain damage. Its use was immediately phased out throughout the world.

The other chemical is a herbicide of the type used by US imperialism to defoliate huge areas of Vietnam. According to a recent scientific survey, growth of vegetation in areas where it was used is unlikely to occur for several decades. A report by the National Academy of Sciences has revealed that 6 million pounds of herbicide was made by the US in 1974. The US Environmental Protection Agency is now reconsidering its use.

This is not the only accident involving dioxin that this Swiss company has experienced. There have been accidents in the US, Britain, W. Germany and Holland, and in all these accidents the whole plant had to be destroyed and buried in deep underground mines! The first accident occurred in Hidwigohifer in W. Germany in 1953 and affected 55 men. In the British accident at the Coalite factory in Bolsover in April 1968, 79 men were affected.

The calamitous mishap at Seveso has sent shock waves reverberating throughout these countries. Now eight years after the accident at the coalite factory the company has decided to investigate what effect the dumped contaminated plant has on the local population. But they never revealed publicly, only in confidence to the County Council’s Planning Committee Chairman, the exact location of the buried plant. It is thought to be buried in an old mine West of the village of Morton.

The destruction of the environment – which has now reached calamitous proportions – is inevitable in a society where the blind forces of the market and the anarchy that goes with it predominates.

In the early decades in the 19th century many children in industrial cities suffered and died from rickets, a disease associated with the lack of Vitamin D. This was principally caused by a thick pall of smoke which hung permanently above industrial areas obscuring the sun and preventing the ultra violet rays in the sunlight from reaching the skin where it is able to synthesise the vitamin D essential to the body. Fifty years on, the situation is exactly reversed. This can be attributed to the multimillion dollar fluorocarbon industry. It has been demonstrated that due to the increased use of chlorofluorocarbon as a propellant in aerosol sprays, this has a destructive effect on the ozone layer in the earth’s stratosphere and the subsequent increase in the ultra violet light. An immediate effect of this is to increase the incidence of skin cancer. The US National Academy of Sciences concludes in a report that a 1% decrease of stratospheric ozone will cause a 2% increase in skin cancer.

Ironically, fluorocarbons started life in the late 1940s as a refrigerant, possessing qualities of non flammability, non toxicity and stability. With the development of the low pressure valve in 1947 the way was opened for aerosol preparations and the first was the hair spray in 1950. In that year 30 million were sold in the US. In 1960, 4,400 million and in 1973, 2.9 thousand million in the US alone! When these chlorofluorocarbons are released they rise into the stratosphere where they destroy the protective ozone layer.

Measures have to be demanded by the labour movement to prevent the occurrence of more Sevesos, to press for the elimination of the destruction of the ozone layer etc. But as each crime of the monopolies is discovered and eliminated others will go undetected until some future calamitous development occurs.

Therefore the only ultimate solution is to take the use of science and technique out of the hands of a handful of profiteers and make it accountable to and controlled by a harmonious socialist society will it be possible to really harness science as a mighty lever for benefitting man and his environment instead of destroying him as is the situation now.

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