Those 41 canisters containing 7 tons of dioxin just won't go away. Or rather, they have gone away, and nobody seems to know where except those who won't tell. And that has revived the Seveso pollution scandal of seven years ago.
That scandal involved a 1976 explosion at a fertilizer plant at Seveso, northern Italy. The plant, which is owned by the Swiss pharmeceutical company Hoffmann-LaRoche, released tetrachloride benzo-paradioxin into the atmosphere. This poison is rated many thousand times stronger than cyanide. No one died from the accident, but 1,800 hectares (4,450 acres) of earth were contaminated.
The latest scandal suggests that adequate controls are still not in place. Even after all the publicity, the original cleanup was bungled. And the contaminated earth remained in Seveso until last September, when it was finally transported to France by a subcontractor of the Italian subsidiary of the West German engineering firm Mannesmann.
The various officials involved seem to have been quite casual about monitoring the disposal. Mannesmann Italiana A. G. stipulated that only the two tons of earth in its 41 canisters be removed from Italy. Italian government officials apparently accompanied the toxic waste only to the French border and then washed their hands of it. The waste - euphemistically described in customs forms as ''derivatives of aromatic hydrocarbons'' - was transported to St. Quentin, north of Paris, and there the trail runs out.
French officials have stated the missing dioxin is not in France, but might be in Germany. West German officials deny the toxins are here, but acknowledge that West German laws about transit of chemicals (as distinct from end-dumping of chemicals) are lax.
The West Germans have then gone on to voice public suspicion that the Swiss parent firm of Hoffmann-LaRoche might have hidden key information about the waste from the Bonn government. (Switzerland offered Tuesday to help search for the missing dioxin-contaminated waste because it had discovered a Swiss company, Etablissement Wadir, planned the storage of the poison, reports Reuters.)
For their part, Swiss officials have expressed doubt that Mannesmann Italiana A.G. ever managed to dispose of the waste in another country at all. And East German officials deny rumors that the dioxin is there.
Nor has the French firm that won the contract to dispose of the 41 canisters - Spelidec - shed any light on the mystery. Spelidec owner Bernard Paringaux declined to tell French criminal investigators where the dioxin went after St. Quentin.
The parliamentary spokeswoman of the West German Green (environmentalist) Party has called for an import ban of Hoffmann-LaRoche pharmaceutical products until the dioxin mystery is cleared up - and for a consumer boycott of these products.
A court case concerning the original 1976 Seveso explosion is due to begin in Milan later this month.