For nearly a year, 41 barrels of clothing and chemical waste impregnated with dioxin - probably the most toxic compound made by man - were missing in Western Europe.
They were lost, or rather, hidden sometime after being picked up by a West German waste-disposal firm in Seveso, Italy. The containers were found early in May in France - but not until deafening outcry by an enraged public had embarrassed those responsible.
Now, although the dioxin case may be closed, others like it could be brewing in boardrooms elsewhere in Western Europe. So environment specialists in European Community offices here have been working to put the finishing touches on new legislation that, if approved by the 10 EC governments, would make it impossible for companies dealing in hazardous wastes to hide anything.
''The dioxin affair has lent a sense of urgency to the problem of trans-frontier shipments of dangerous wastes,'' says Common Market Commission enviromental staff member Benno Risch.
What EC lawmakers have in mind is a trip-ticket system that would ensure, in the words of the proposal, ''uninterrupted supervision and monitoring of hazardous wastes from the source right through to their final nonpolluting disposal, even if this is to take place on the other side of the national frontier. . . .''
EC officials are hopeful that Community environment ministers will approve the legislation at a June 16 meeting.
Some 160 million tons of industrial waste are produced in the EC every year, including 25 million to 30 million tons labeled toxic or dangerous. Of those, some 10 percent cross national borders for disposal or treatment.
EC officials say that for several years the cross-border traffic has been increasing steadily for several reasons. Facilities in the producing country remain inadequate. Treatment plants or dumps in neighboring countries are often closer than those in the producing country. And environmental controls in receiving countries are often less stringent.
Currently, although most EC countries have strict rules governing the shipment and disposal of dangerous wastes within their national borders, only West Germany has specific legislation regarding imports and exports. Beyond that , all that exists is a series of ad hoc bilateral agreements between individual EC countries. But the dioxin affair, critics say, has proved that such agreements have left gaping loopholes. The new Community rules would oblige companies to notify the ''competent authorities'' in their countries, any ''transit'' countries, and destination countries that shipments were on their way.
What irks environmentalists about the proposal, however, is that it does not make provisions for the importing country to prohibit the waste from entering the country. Nor does it apply to waste leaving the Community.
Environmentalists also argue that any new legislation regulating the cross-border shipment of hazardous waste in the EC should only be seen as another step, and not the end, of a comprehensive hazardous-waste management policy for the Community.
Such a policy, according to environmentalists, would encourage ''on site'' waste treatment; the construction of a sufficient number of waste-treatment or disposal facilities; and a ban on dumping at sea, which is expected to increase as disposal on land becomes more difficult.