Mass Poisoning in Spain Still Steeped in Mystery


The clear plastic jug, still partly filled with what appears to be cooking oil, has been locked in Arcadio Fernandez’s hall closet for 10 years.

He keeps it for skeptics who doubt that adulterated rapeseed oil was to blame for at least 402 deaths in the worst known modern outbreak of food poisoning.

“If someone has doubts, they can try it,” said Fernandez, one of 20,000 people still suffering from toxic syndrome, the illness that struck his family after they used the oil.

A decade after the first deaths in May, 1981, the case surrounding toxic syndrome is a tangle of unanswered questions and loose ends.


There was a burst of media attention on May 1, the 10th anniversary of the death of the first official victim, 8-year-old Jaime Vaquero, but for most Spaniards the tragedy is a frightening memory seldom discussed.

The rapeseed oil was unfit for human consumption and it had been dyed red so it would be used only for industrial purposes--in this case as machine oil. The 13 businessmen convicted in the case somehow removed the dye and marketed the rapeseed oil as cheap olive oil, authorities say.

Scientists still do not know how this was done, but say the process created a deadly chemical reaction. Researchers have yet to find the agent that caused toxic syndrome, reproduce it in a laboratory or find a cure.

Door-to-door salesmen sold the oil in gallon jugs in working-class neighborhoods, mostly in the Madrid area.


Many people who consumed it suffered intense pain in their bones. Doctors at first could not determine the cause and people continued to use the oil.

Five weeks after Jaime Vaquero died, research pointing to the oil caused the government to issue a nationwide warning against its use.

After hearing 15 months of testimony and deliberating for 11 months, a three-judge tribunal ended the longest trial in Spanish history by ruling in 1989 that the oil had caused toxic syndrome.

The court convicted the businessmen of importing the oil, tampering with it and marketing it as edible. They were ordered to pay compensation to the victims and their families, but they declared bankruptcy. The case has been appealed.


A second case, still to be tried, is to decide whether the government was liable for not stopping the fraud before the oil reached consumers. If the verdict is guilty, the government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez might have to pay victims up to $1 billion in damages.

Some government compensation is expected whatever the outcome, but officials say the administration will not step in until both court cases are resolved. That angers the thousands of survivors and families of the dead, who still await cash damages they were awarded in the first case.

So far, the government has spent an estimated $1 billion to help victims and their families.

According to the government’s Toxic Syndrome Assistance Office, 402 people have died of the illness. Victims’ lawyers contend that the toll is nearly double that.


Half the survivors still are seriously ill, the office says. Two thousand, including Fernandez’s wife, Pilar, receive full disability pensions.

Many victims have been disabled by illness and are in constant pain. In some cases, their hands and feet have been crippled and deformed by a loss of mass.

Fernandez, who heads a group of 5,500 victims, fears that many will die before they are paid.

“The indemnities are our right,” he said. “They should go to the victims, not their grandchildren.”


The World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Spanish health officials agree that studies show the oil caused toxic syndrome, but have not found the deadly agent they believe was produced when the oil was tampered with.

“But there are many illnesses for which we don’t know the causal agent--take cancer for example,” said Luis Soldevilla, who coordinates government studies of the oil.

Several doctors and journalists, including the authors of a 1988 book “The Toxic Syndrome Coverup,” believe the scientists cannot find the toxic agent because it was not in the oil.

They say the poison was contained in tomatoes improperly treated with pesticides. According to the authors, Gudrun Greunke and Jorg Heimbrecht, health officials silenced doctors and scientists whose studies refuted the toxic oil theory.


Neither Soldevilla nor Francisca Sauquillo, a lawyer for the victims, gives much credence to the tomato theory.

Sauquillo points to the tomes of trial testimony that line an entire shelf in her office.

“If you read these volumes, you’ll see that all 20,000 of those affected consumed that oil,” she said.