'It still haunts me': Toxic cooking oil scandal hangs over Spain 40 years on

·4-min read
James Badcock 'It still haunts me': Toxic cooking oil scandal haunts Spain 40 years on IMG-20211022-WA0026.jpg
James Badcock 'It still haunts me': Toxic cooking oil scandal haunts Spain 40 years on IMG-20211022-WA0026.jpg

In early 1981 Miguel Ángel Sánchez was a strapping boy for 11, weighing in at seven stone and desperate to become a central defender for Real Madrid.

In the space of two weeks that May he became bedbound, lost nearly two thirds of his bodyweight and never walked again after becoming one of the between 20,000 and 40,000 people across central and northwestern Spain to be struck down by a poisoning episode linked to a toxic batch of rapeseed oil.  

On Tuesday, Mr Sánchez used his electric wheelchair to join five fellow sufferers of toxic oil syndrome at a protest at Madrid’s Prado museum, where they threatened to take suicide pills if they were not given the opportunity to present their complaints to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Security staff and police promptly removed them and no meetings have yet been arranged with Spain’s leaders or health authorities.

“It hurts that we are not being recognised; we are scorned by governments and institutions. They have condemned us to continue living in 1981,” Mr Sánchez told The Telegraph after the protest.

“We had no other option. The doors have closed to us one after another. No prime minister has ever received us in 40 years,” said Carmen Cortés, president of the national platform for victims of toxic oil syndrome called Seguimos Viviendo (We are still alive), who was also part of the protest.

The protest site was chosen because among mounting deaths from the poisoning, estimated at around 5,000, that same year of 1981 saw the arrival in the Prado of Picasso’s Guernica, the Spanish Civil War-inspired masterpiece, whose return from New York symbolised the dawn of a hopeful modern era in Spain as democracy re-established itself after the 1975 death of dictator Francisco Franco.

“That was a proud moment for Spain, but we seem to be third-rate victims. So many children died and they deserve a homage and recognition from the state. It’s as if we were the guilty parties, not victims of poisoning,” said Mr Sánchez, who suffers from 97 per cent disability under the health system’s parameters.

Mr Sánchez, who lost his mother and also saw one of his sisters fall ill from the poisoning, takes up to 14 pills a day as well as injections as he copes with a range of health problems from severe fibromyalgia and osteoporosis to chronic fatigue and diabetes.

In 1981, before Spain’s entry into the EU, rapeseed oil was only imported for industrial use to protect the local olive oil sector. To discourage illicit sales, rapeseed oil had a chemical colourant called aniline added to it. But, Mr Sánchez reflected, “greed is a universal vice” and some businesses tampered with the oil to remove the dye, with disastrous results as the product was hawked around street markets and sold as cheap olive oil.  

In 1989, 13 businessmen were convicted of public health offences, although only two were jailed.

Yet the 52-year-old considers himself to be one of the luckier survivors, having been able to use a large chunk of the compensation the state was ordered to pay to some 17,500 recognised victims in 1997 on adapting his home in the village of Peñaranda de Bracamonte.

“Life gave me a second chance, with its limitations and pain. My wife Felisa loves me and looks after me,” said Mr Sánchez, who has two grown-up children.

But he says the government’s promises from the early 1980s to look after victims have been forgotten. The specialised health units have been closed, the damages paid out had previous assistance deducted from them and the money has long gone for most.

“The sum I received works out at 400 euros a month. I’ve never worked so I don’t get a pension and nor will my wife when I die because she left her job to care for me. My orthopaedic boots cost 3,000 euros, the wheelchair even more, and I need physiotherapy twice a week to ease the pain.”

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