Environmental Disasters Society has Learnt From

The environmental movement took a big leap forward in 1969 as a result of a disaster caused by pollution. We review here that event and some other disasters caused by human action. They are better known for the big shock they caused society than for their impact on nature. From them we learned lessons that have led to greater protection of the natural environment.

Cuyahoga: the river that caught fire (1969)

In the area around Cleveland (Ohio), one of the largest industrial centres in the US flourished during the twentieth century. In parallel to the development of industry, the Cuyahoga River, which runs through the city, also quickly climbed to the top of the pollution list. The Cuyahoga River was so filled with flammable substances and floating debris that every so often its surface caught fire. More than a dozen fires were reported in the river until, in 1969, some mass of floating fire caught the attention of Time magazine. The weekly published some spectacular photos of “the river that oozes rather than flows.”

The article and photos shocked American society and led to major changes. Until then, up to 1969, local industries could dump waste into the rivers without any controls. After the fire on the Cuyahoga river, a movement in defense of the environment in the US was also set ablaze. Incoming president Richard Nixon was able to see the social concern for environmental issues and, following the celebration of the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), Nixon responded by creating the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The fire on the Cuyahoga (which flows into Lake Erie) also prompted an agreement between the US and Canada to protect the Great Lakes, on the border between the two countries. A year later, the federal law to control water pollution (Clean Water Act) came into being.


Credits: Time Magazine

Nowadays, the echoes of that river that caught fire in 1969 still resonate in pop songs (by R.E.M. or Randy Newman), but it was actually not the most serious fire suffered by the Cuyahoga River. The fire of 1952 had been much larger and caused many more losses. In fact, the famous Time magazine photos were from 1952, as in 1969 the photographers got to the river too late, after the fire had already been extinguished. The local media did not even pay much attention to the disaster that spawned environmental controls in the US.

The nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island (1979)

On March 28, 1979, there was an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania). After a partial meltdown of one of its three reactors occurred, the alarm sounded quickly and the television reporters dispatched to cover the event were caught up in scenes of panic, bewildered by the invisible threat of radioactivity.

An undetermined amount of radioactive gases were released into the environment. However, the radioactive contamination detected around the plant was much lower than in accidents like Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), and the epidemiological studies carried out did not find a causal relationship between the accident and the slight increase in cancer cases in the area of the ​​nuclear power station. Yet, the cleanup lasted 14 years and cost one billion dollars.


Credits: National Archives and Records Administration

Again, the environmental disaster (the most serious nuclear accident in the US) did have mostly social and legal consequences. The antinuclear movement was revived, and the “atomic” industry saw itself subject to new legislation. The accident also had media consequences. Walter Cronkite, the legendary television news presenter, spoke of the media coverage of Three Mile Island as being “the most confusing day in the history of the news media.” There were contradictory statements given by experts and almost all the 300 reporters sent to the area lacked basic knowledge of nuclear physics.

Both the communication media as well as the journalism schools realized the need to train specialized reporters to cover information about science and technology. As a result, that same year the first postgraduate program in Science Writing was launched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), followed by similar courses at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and at New York University.

The Seveso disaster (1976)

Seveso is a town near Milan that would be unknown outside Italy but for an accident in a small chemical plant that manufactured pesticides. Toxic gases arrived at the nearby towns, causing tens of thousands people to be exposed to the highest levels ever recorded of a dioxin: specifically TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin), one of the most lethal of these types of substances and known for being part of Agent Orange used by the US in the Vietnam War.

No one died in the so-called “Seveso disaster”, contrary to what happened after the most famous gas leak in history: in 1984 another pesticide plant in Bhopal (India), caused nearly 4,000 confirmed deaths and left more than half a million affected. In Seveso the immediate consequences were panic and evacuations. 80,000 animals were slaughtered to prevent toxins from entering the food chain and several thousand people were treated for dioxin poisoning.

In the long term, scientists have been able to learn many lessons from Seveso, thanks to the doctors having retained blood samples from all the patients. Decades after the accident, scientific studies keep on rising from all that amount of data about dioxin exposure. In addition, industrial safety regulations were standardized in Europe. From this accident was born the EU legislation known as the Seveso directive, which regulates the handling and storage of hazardous chemicals

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