It started with the death of eight-year-old Jaime Garcia in his mother’s arms on the way to hospital. When doctors learned that his five siblings were also ill, the whole family was rushed to hospital to be treated for ‘atypical pneumonia’. But, as more people in the satellite towns around Madrid started suffering from high fevers, fluid on the lungs, skin lesions and excruciating muscle pain, doctors became increasingly baffled.
On May 12, a newspaper report indicated that the illness might be organo-phosphate poisoning, but no further mention was ever made of this link. In June another theory was propounded: the symptoms were caused by aniline poisoning from cheap cooking oil doctored with industrial rapeseed oil by unscrupulous dealers. This explanation fitted the facts sufficiently to suit the health authorities and on June 10 the Toxic Oil Syndrome (TOS) disaster was officially announced.
Six years later, in March 1987, 40 back-street traders appeared in court. They didn’t dispute the fact that they had mis-sold industrial rapeseed oil, but denied that their oil had caused TOS. Dr Manuel Posada of the National Health Research Centre gave evidence that ‘the correlation between the illness and the oil is so impressive, it is the only viable theory’ and was backed up by expert British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll and the World Health Authority. Several defendants were given hefty prison sentences.
But it didn’t add up – people who had ingested quantities of cheap oil had often not displayed any TOS symptoms, while many who had not touched it had been severely stricken. Conspiracy theorists delight in the idea that scientists have colluded with the Spanish authorities in covering up the truth behind the disaster. But it is equally probable that nobody really knows what caused TOS, nor ever will.
When: May 1981
Where: Provinces of Madrid, Segovia and Palencia, Spain
Death toll: Over 300 people died and more than 20,000 were affected; many were left permanently disabled.
You should know: Some think TOS was an outbreak of organo-phosphate poisoning from fruit or vegetables, mass-produced in the plastic polytunnels of southeast Spain with the aid of massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. An alternative theory blames an accident involving biological weapons at the US air base at Torrejon, just outside Madrid. It has been suggested that the doctored rapeseed oil was a convenient myth to protect Spain’s burgeoning agro-industry or military interests. However, TOS has been extensively studied and it would take a cover-up of truly monumental proportions to perpetuate such a falsehood if there was any clear evidence to the contrary.