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Spain Public Safety and Environmental Problems
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    The reform and improvement of the country's food regulations and inspection procedures were long overdue. In 1981 Spain experienced a major public health disaster, a "toxic syndrome" still unexplained, but believed to be connected with the consumption of rapeseed oil intended for industrial use, but marketed by door-to-door salesmen as olive oil. More than 300 people died from this substance, and hundreds more were permanently disabled.

    The rapeseed tragedy was only one of a number of man-made or man-aggravated disasters that Spain has experienced since it crossed the threshold into industrial society. Airplane crashes, train derailments, bus collisions, hotel fires, gas explosions--these and other tragedies were nearly commonplace in Spain. Far more people died in train accidents in Spain, for example, than in any other country in Europe. Spain suffered these disasters largely because of a combination of the advanced technology of an industrializing and urbanizing society, low standards of professional competence and private sector morality (themselves the product of rapid growth), and the state's unwillingness or inability to step in to regulate this increasingly sophisticated and complex society. Two problems of special importance can be cited here: public health and environmental contamination.

    As the rapeseed tragedy illustrates, one of the chief problems in the public health field had to do with food and drink inspection and regulation. Although food containers and additives were analyzed by government chemists, the food and drink themselves were not tested before being put on sale. One report on the subject in the mid-1980s estimated that, in the whole of Spain, there were fewer than 1,000 people working full-time to check the quality of the food and drink in the 225,000 places where they were manufactured, distributed, sold, and consumed. Another check of the 3,000 restaurants, bars, and hotels in Madrid found that 35 percent of the wine, 41 percent of the spirits, and 75 percent of the milk and ice were unfit for human consumption. Rapid and uncontrolled industrialization and urbanization had left a legacy of air, water, and noise pollution that would take a major government effort many years to correct. The rivers flowing through Spain's major cities, such as Madrid or Bilbao, were little more than open sewers. One survey of Bilbao's Rio Nervion showed that 385 factories dumped their untreated effluents into it, and that the oxygen content was only 5 percent compared with the 60 percent, needed to sustain fish. In Madrid, air pollution was a major problem during the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when the suspended particle count reached an average of more than 200 micrograms per cubic meter of air, compared with the government's recommended maximum level of 80. Bilbao's atmospheric carbon dioxide level was the highest of all the cities in Western Europe. Air pollution was a problem, due to the heavy automobile traffic (in the late 1970s only seven countries in the world had more registered passenger cars than Spain), oil-fired space heating, and heavy industry.

    Although there had been significant improvement in environmental protection in such large cities as Bilbao and Madrid in the late 1980s, the mid-sized industrial cities around the country were still experiencing rising populations and pollution at alarming rates. According to a 1987 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Spain was one of Europe's noisiest countries, principally because there were no regulations covering industrial or automobile noise levels. In late 1987, the Ministry of Public Works and City Planning finally drafted several government decrees that, for the first time, set maximum noise levels for industrial and construction machinery, motorcycles, and automobiles, and established new regulations in building codes that would require soundproofing for residences, hospitals, schools, and cultural centers. A survey of 226 firms in Madrid showed that 60 percent of their 165,000 employees were working in noise higher than government-approved limits. In 1988 a government report revealed that Spanish industry was producing 1,700,000 tons of toxic waste material each year, of which only 240,000 tons could be disposed of by burning. When the international agency, the Oslo Convention, denied Spain the right to dump some of these wastes in the North Sea, the government had to store thousands of tons of highly toxic chemicals in warehouses along the coast of the Bay of Biscay because there was no way that they could be released into the environment safely.

    Data as of December 1988

    NOTE: The information regarding Spain on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Spain Public Safety and Environmental Problems information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Spain Public Safety and Environmental Problems should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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