Skip to main content Accessibility help

Psychopathological Aspects of the Toxic Oil Syndrome Catastrophe

  • J. J. López-Ibor (a1), J. Soria (a2), F. Cañas (a3) and M. Rodriguez-Gamazo (a4)


In May 1981 a new disease caused by widespread food-poisoning (probably with adulterated rape-seed oil) appeared in Spain. More than 20000 people were affected, and about 350 patients have died. The clinical syndrome consisted of pulmonary, neuromuscular and systemic symptoms, which evolved to produce mild or severe physical disabilities. Although the disease is not primarily a psychiatric condition, more than 6000 TOS patients have been referred to a psychiatrist: these patients show a well-defined ‘reactive disaster syndrome’, vulnerability being associated with female sex, low income and class, and a personal history of ‘nervous' disorders. The enormous public repercussions of the disease and the specific administrative measures it provoked are discussed and evaluated. This unique experience of a specific disaster can contribute to our knowledge of the psychological and psychiatric aspects of disasters in general; and it suggests that teams of psychologists and psychiatrists should play a significant role in managing the effects of major catastrophes.


Corresponding author



Hide All

Part of this paper was delivered by one of us (J. J. López-Ibor Jr) at the Royal College of Psychiatrists Spring Quarterly Meeting in Oxford on 26 April 1983.



Hide All
Adler, A. (1943) Neuropsychiatric complications in victims of Boston's Cocoanut Grove disaster. Journal of the American Medical Association, 123, 10981100.
Adler, A. (1945) Two different types of post-traumatic neuroses. American Journal of Psychiatry, 102, 237240.
American Psychiatric Association (Committee on Civil Defence) (1956) Diaster Fatigue. Cause and Treatment of Psychological Disorders in Civil Disasters. Washington: American Psychiatric Association.
Balson, P. M. & Dempster, C. R. (1980) Treatment of war neuroses from Vietnam. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 21, 167175.
Brill, N. Q. & Glass, J. F. (1965) Workmen's compensation for psychiatric disorders. Journal of the American Medical Association, 193, 345348.
Calve, A., Munoz, P. E., Crespo, M. D., López-Ibor, J. J. Jr., Duque, M., Campoy, A., López-Ibor, J. M., Santo-Domingo, J., Rallo, J., Aguilera, J. C. & Diago, F. (1985, in press) Point prevalence of psychiatric and psychological disorders in the general hospitals of Madrid—Preliminary results. In Psychiatry: The State of the Art (Proceedings of the VIIth World Congress of Psychiatry). New York: Plenum Press.
Catala Villanueva, F. J. & Mata de la Torre, J. M. S. (1982) Epidemiología del síndrome tóxico. In Symposium Nacional Sindrome Tóxico. Madrid: Ministerio de Sanidad y Consumo.
Chodoff, P. (1966) Effects of extreme coercive and oppressive forces: Brainwashing and concentration camps. In American Handbook of Psychiatry, Vol. 3. Eds. Ariety, Silvano & Brody, Eugene B. New York: Basic Books.
Eichelman, B., Soskis, D. A. & Reid, W. H. (eds) (1983) Terrorism; Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Washington: American Psychiatric Association.
Glass, A. J. (1959) Psychological aspects of disasters. Journal of the American Medical Association, 171, 188191.
Grauer, H. (1969) Psychodynamics of the survivor syndrome. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, 14, 617622.
Horowitz, M. H. (1974) Stress response syndromes: Character, style, and dynamic psychotherapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 31, 768781.
Janis, I. L. (1951) Air War and Emotional Stress: Psychological Studies of Bombings and Civilian Defense. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kasl, S. V., Chisholm, R. F. & Eskanazi, B. (1981) The impact of the accident at the Three Mile Island on the behavior and well-being of nuclear workers. Part I: Perceptions and evaluations, behavioral responses and work-related attitudes and feelings. Part II: Job tension, psychophysiological symptoms and indices of distress. American Journal of Psychiatry, 71, 472495.
Kinston, W. & Rosser, R. (1974) Disaster: effects on mental and physical state. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 18, 437456.
Kristal, H. (1968) Massive Psychic Trauma. New York: International Universities Press.
Leopold, R. L. & Dillon, H. (1963) Psychoanatomy of a disaster: a long-term study of post-traumatic neuroses in survivors of a marine explosion. American Journal of Psychiatry, 119, 913921.
Lifton, R. J. (1956) Thought reform of western civilians in Chinese communist prisons. Psychiatry, 19, 173195.
Lifton, R. J. (1968) Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. New York: Random House.
López-Ibor, J. J. Jr., Rey, G., Abad, R., López-Ibor, J. M. & Rodriguez Gamazo, M. (1985a, in press) The Unified Clinical Record (HCU). In Psychiatry: The State of the Art (Proceedings of the VIIth World Congress of Psychiatry). New York: Plenum Press.
Lifton, R. J. López-Ibor, J. M., Alonso, A., De la Hoz, A., Fuentes, P. & Rios, B. (1985b, in press) Evaluation of psycho-organicity in health disasters: the Toxic Oil Syndrome experience. In Psychiatry: The State of the Art (Proceedings of the VIIth World Congress of Psychiatry). New York: Plenum Press.
Marshall, S. L. A. (1947) Men under Fire: Problem of Battle Command in Future War. New York: William Morrow and Co.
Martin, M. (1962) Psychological aspects of a nuclear disaster. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 87, 13841386.
Mufson, M. (1982) Three Mile Island: Psychological effects of a nuclear accident and mass media coverage. In Psychosocial Aspects of Nuclear Developments. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Newman, C. J. (1976) Children of disaster: clinical observations at Buffalo Creek. American Journal of Psychiatry, 133, 306312.
Parker, G. (1977) Cyclone Tracy and Darwin evacuees: on the restoration of species. British Journal of Psychiatry, 130, 548555.
Patrick, V. & Patrick, W. K. (1981) Cyclone '78 in Sri Lanka. The mental health trail. British Journal of Psychiatry, 138, 210216.
Rabassa, B. & Echevarria, C. (1983) Sociology of depressions in Spain. In General Hospital Psychiatry, ed. López-Ibor, J. J. Jr., Saiz, J. & López-Ibor, J. M. Amsterdam: Excerpta Medica.
Rangell, B. (1976) Discussion of the Buffalo Creek disaster: the course of psychic trauma. American Journal of Psychiatry, 133, 313316.
Siemes, J. A. (1946) Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. Atomic Scientists Bulletin, 1, 26.
Sobel, R. (1949) Old sergeant syndrome. Bulletin of the U.S. Army Medical Department, 9, 137146.
Soria, J., Cañas, F., López-Ibor, J. J. Jr., Santo-Domingo, J., López-Ibor, J. M. & Acosta, E. (1985) Liaison psychiatry in Toxic Oil Syndrome. In General Hospital Psychiatry, eds López-Ibor, J. J. Jr., Sáiz, J. & López-Ibor, J. M. Amsterdam: Excerpta Medica.
Surtees, P. G., Kiff, J. & Rennie, D. (1981) Adversity and mental health: an empirical investigation of their relationship. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 64, 177192.
Terr, L. C. (1983) Chowchilla revisited: The effects of psychic trauma four years after a school bus kidnapping. American Journal of Psychiatry, 140, 15431550.
Titchener, I. L. & Kapp, F. T. (1976) Family and character change at Buffalo Creek. American Journal of Psychiatry, 133, 295299.
Titchener, I. L. & Ross, W. D. (1966) Acute or chronic stress as determinants of behavior, character, and neurosis. In American Handbook of Psychiatry, eds. Arieti, Silvano & Brody, Eugene B. New York: Basic Books.
Thyhurst, J. S. (1951) Individual reactions to community disasters. The natural history of psychiatric phenomena. American Journal of Psychiatry, 107, 764769.
Venzlaff, U. (1958) Die psvchoreaktiven Störungen nach Entschädigungspflichten Ereignissen. Berlin: Springer Verlag.
Von Baeyer, W., Haefner, H. & Kisker, K. P. (1964) Psychiatrie der Verfolgten. Berlin: Springer Verlag.
WHO (1984) Report of the Workshop on the Toxic Oil Syndrome (Madrid, March 1983). Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe.
Wolfenstein, M. (1957) Disaster: A Psychological Essay. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: 0007-1250
  • EISSN: 1472-1465
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed

Psychopathological Aspects of the Toxic Oil Syndrome Catastrophe

  • J. J. López-Ibor (a1), J. Soria (a2), F. Cañas (a3) and M. Rodriguez-Gamazo (a4)
Submit a response


No eLetters have been published for this article.


Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *