Timeline of chemical risk

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This is a timeline of chemical risk.

Big picture

Time period Development summary More details
Pre-18th century Early exploration and unawareness During this era, there is a limited understanding of chemical risks as ancient civilizations encounter hazards without systematic awareness. The use of chemicals in traditional practices and alchemical experiments characterize this period.
18th – 19th century Industrial Revolution and uncontrolled expansion The Industrial Revolution brings rapid industrialization and the introduction of numerous new chemicals. However, the lack of safety measures leads to accidents and health issues. Industrial processes expand without comprehensive safety regulations during this time. Instances like the Hoechst aniline cancer cases (1895) mark early recognition of industrial chemicals' health impacts.
Early 20th century - Mid-20th century Rise of industrial toxicology and pollution concerns Advances in toxicology emerge, driven by industrial growth. The mid-20th century witnesses increased awareness of air and water pollution, leading to regulatory efforts. Silent Spring (1962) highlights pesticide risks, emphasizing ecological concerns.
Mid-20th century - Late 20th century Environmental Movement and Regulatory Responses The 1960s environmental movement prompts regulatory actions worldwide. Major incidents, like the Bhopal gas tragedy (1984), underscores industrial accidents' catastrophic potential. Global cooperation, exemplified by the 1985 Vienna Convention, addressed ozone layer threats.
Late 20th century - Present Terrorism's intersection with chemical Risk The late 20th century sees a shift with terrorism incorporating chemical threats. Instances like the Tokyo subway sarin attack (1995) introduce deliberate chemical risks. The 21st century witnesses a convergence of accidental, environmental, and terrorist-related chemical concerns.

Summary by decade

Time period Development summary More details
1950s Experts at both national and international levels extensively deliberate on the escalating issues of air pollution, the existence of pesticide residues and toxic dyes in food, and general concerns regarding pesticides.[1]:12-13
1960s There is a notable increase in environmental awareness, marked by the rise of a growing environmental movement worldwide and heightened governmental efforts to monitor and regulate pollution.[1]:12

Full timeline

Year Risk type Event type Agent Details Country/location
1675 (August 27) Strasbourg Agreement (1675) France, Holy Roman Empire
1855 Non-intentional Literature Belgian pharmacist Léon Peeters publishes a brochure titled Salubrité publique: Guérison radicale de la maladie des pommes de terre et d’autres végétaux, attributing the devastating potato plant epidemic of the late 1840s to hazardous vapors from the chemical industry. Peeters suggests that these vapors caused widespread famine in Europe and posed risks to small children through airborne poisons. The ensuing protests and expert testimonies reveal a blend of chemical and toxicological perspectives regarding gases like hydrogen chloride, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, alongside traditional beliefs in the roles of miasmas and contagions in public hygiene.[1]:9 Belgium, Europe
1865 Hermann Eulenberg, a German state physician responsible for the Rhineland, synthesizes the impacts of hazardous vapors on human health and vegetation in a comprehensive textbook on noxious and poisonous gases. This publication follows protests and expert testimony triggered by Belgian pharmacist Léon Peeters' 1855 brochure linking a potato plant epidemic to dangerous vapors from the chemical industry. Eulenberg's textbook, spanning five hundred pages, adopts a primarily chemical perspective, distinguishing suffocating gases and three types of toxic gases (narcotic, irritating, biolytic) with distinct formulae. While emphasizing a chemical approach, the text also discusses gaseous miasmas and their epidemic consequences, reflecting the complex views on (gaseous) poisons prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century. This work serves as a milestone at the intersection of public health and toxicology, providing insights into "external" industrial hygiene that later evolves into environmental toxicology.[1]:10 Germany
1880 The "minimal lethal dose" emerges as a crucial concept in toxicology during a period when industry begins playing a prominent role in the field. As the number of industry-produced chemicals surges, their often-unknown toxicological properties pose health risks to workers. Industrial toxicology gains prominence, and a paradigm shift occurrs, shaping the overall understanding of poisons. The concept of the "minimal lethal dose" becomes integral, serving as a quantitative measure to compare the toxicity of distinct acute poisons. This notion marks a significant step in quantifying the harmful effects of chemicals and establishing threshold values to assess their impact.[1]:11
1890 The Berne Convention marks the first international regulation of the transportation of hazardous goods by rail.[1]:30
1895 Non-intentional Dr. Ludwig Rehn reports cases of bladder tumors among workers in the magenta department of a German aniline dyeworks. This discovery, presented at the Congress of the German Society of Surgery, marks one of the earliest instances of industrial carcinoma diagnosis. The affected workers were exposed to magenta, a chemical produced from aniline, for almost four decades. Subsequently, similar cases emerge in other aniline dyeworks, leading to the term "aniline cancer." This event highlights the link between industrial chemicals and cancer, foreshadowing future findings of carcinogenic properties in various industrial substances.[1]:1 Germany
1912 Non-intentional Swiss urologist S. G. Leuenberger documents instances of bladder cancer in eighteen dye factory employees in Basel, home to CIBA and Geigy. Analyzing death records from 1901 to 1910, Leuenberger determines that mortality rates from urinary passage tumors are thirty-three times higher among dye factory workers compared to those in different occupations.[1]:142 Switzerland
1916 (March) Biological warfare facility Porton Down is established to provide a proper scientific basis for the British use of chemical warfare, in response to the German use of such methods in 1915.[2] United Kingdom
1917 Edgewood Chemical Activity is built. United States
1918 Intentional Organization Edgewood Arsenal is established. Renamed several times, it is now known as Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. United States
1918 (May) United States Army Gas School
1918 (June 28) The Chemical Warfare Service is established.
1919 (June 28) The Treaty of Versailles bans Germany from manufacturing or stockpiling chemical weapons (among many things).
1925 (June 17) Intentional International legislation and agreements The Geneva Protocol is created, with the purpose to prohibit the use of chemical and bacteriological methods of warfare. This protocol marks the first international endeavor to restrict the utilization of biological agents in warfare.[3]:p14[4]
1925 Non-intentional Literature John Hepburn publishes Crop Production, Poisoned Food, and Public Health, in which he contends that the utilization of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture constitute a significant factor contributing to cancer. He perceives cancer as a contagious ailment. This argument is associated with concerns about chemical risk, highlighting the potential dangers posed by the use of specific chemicals in agriculture and their potential impact on public health, particularly in terms of cancer development.[1]:10
Early 1930s The Rawalpindi experiments begin.[5] Pakistan
1930s A German scientist created Tabun, the first nerve agent, while attempting to develop a more potent pesticide. The German army weaponized Tabun as a chemical weapon, and it was followed by the development of Sarin and Soman in the late 1930s to early 1940s. American scientists designated these agents as "G" agents, leading to Tabun being labeled GA, Sarin as GB, and Soman as GD. In the 1950s, more stable variants known as the V agents, including VX (Venom X) developed by the British in 1952, emerged. VX, characterized by increased stability, can persist in the environment for several weeks after release.[6]:120-121
1936 (December23) The first class of nerve agents, the G-series, is accidentally discovered in Germany by a research team headed by Gerhard Schrader working for IG Farben. Germany
1943 Intentional (Prevention) The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense is established. United States
1948–1975 Operation Edgewood Arsenal human experiments United States
1950 The International Air Transport Association (IATA) initiates the issuance of the first list of recommendations for the air transport of dangerous goods. A revised edition is released in 1956.[1]:31
1952 The ILO Chemical Industries Committee proposes five basic symbols for hazardous materials: liquids spilling (corrosion), bomb (explosion), flame (fire), skull and crossbones (poison), and trefoil (radioactivity). The UN Economic and Social Council would adopt this ILO system in 1958.[1]:32-33
1957 The European Agreement Concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road is adopted, representing the initial international agreement to regulate the road transport of hazardous materials. It would undergo regular updates and revisions over the following decades to accommodate evolving standards and ensure the safe international transportation of dangerous goods by road.[1]:31
1957 Intentional Zinc cadmium sulfide Operation LAC is launched to assess the release of aerosols from airplanes. The first experiment involves a region spanning from South Dakota to Minnesota, and subsequent tests extend to areas between Ohio and Texas and from Michigan to Kansas. The results of these experiments demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale deployment of a bioweapon from the air, as some test particles are found to travel distances of up to 1200 miles. This raises serious concerns about the potential implications of aerial bioweapon deployment and underscored the significance of biorisk management and international security measures.[3]:p15 United States
1961 The Berne Convention was revised.[1]:31
1962 (May) Intentional Multiple The Joint Chiefs of Staff creates the Deseret Test Center at Fort Douglas, Utah, a decommissioned army base.[7] DTC is tasked with overseeing chemical and biological weapons testing. This initiative, known as Project 112, would conduct various tests in land-based, Arctic, and tropical environments, ending in 1972. The testing locations include diverse settings such as land areas and barges in the Pacific Ocean.[8][9] United States
1962 Non-intentional Literature Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, which focuses on the harmful impacts of pesticides, specifically DDT, on birds. The publication played a key role in the 1972 ban of DDT in the United States. Widely recognized for its influence, the book is credited with catalyzing the environmental movement and fostering a heightened concern for the enhanced regulation and management of pesticides and other chemicals.[10] United States
1962–1973 Operation Project 112
1965 The Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization and the International Maritime Organization play a key role in developing the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code.[1]:31
1969 Statement on Chemical and Biological Defense Policies and Programs United States
1971 OECD member countries, recognizing the need for international cooperation on chemicals, established a Chemicals Group within the OECD. This decision was motivated by several factors, including the presence of major chemical-producing nations among OECD members, a shared "like-mindedness" facilitating agreements, the flexibility to make agreements legally or politically binding through OECD Council Acts, the ability to convene national experts, and the organization's multidisciplinary nature enabling beneficial interactions with various policy areas. The OECD provides a platform to address specialized scientific issues, serving as an interface between government regulators and scientists.[10]
1971 Chemical weapons start being stockpiled on Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System facility.[11] United States
1972 The Code for the Construction and Equipment of Ships Carrying Dangerous Chemicals in Bulk is issued.[1]:31
1974 Non-intentional American chemist F. Sherwood Rowland and Mexican chemist Mario Molina publish a groundbreaking article in the scientific journal Nature, providing compelling evidence of the threats posed by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to the stratospheric ozone layer. Their research demonstrates the harmful impact of these chemicals on the Earth's protective ozone layer. This work would become pivotal in raising awareness about the environmental risks associated with CFCs, as it would contribute significantly to the understanding of their role in ozone depletion. The recognition of their pioneering contributions would come in 1995 when Rowland, Molina, and Paul Crutzen are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The acknowledgment highlights the critical importance of their research in the field of atmospheric chemistry and its implications for global chemical risk, particularly in the context of ozone layer protection.[10] United States
1975 (April 8) Executive Order 11850
1975 Intentional Terrorism (state-sponsored) Parathion, thallium, multiple During the Rhodesian conflict, the minority white community in Rhodesia face challenges from native African nationalists. Stretched thin, Rhodesian forces adopt unconventional methods, employing commercially available poisons like parathion and thallium. They contaminate clothing, water sources, and food, resulting in an estimated 1,500–2,500 guerilla deaths, with numerous civilians affected. Facing native African nationalist insurgents, the Rhodesian forces struggled due to limited resources. Rhodesia's chemical warfare, marked by low-tech methods, demonstrate a brutal, yet unconventional approach to counter the growing power of the insurgent forces.[12] Zimbabwe (Rhodesia)
1975 The World Health Organization implements a categorization system for pesticides, considering factors such as their physical forms (solid, liquid, aerosol) and their potential harm in terms of acute and dermal toxicity to rats. This classification aims to systematically organize pesticides, facilitating the assessment of their risks.[1]:26
1976 Non-intentional 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin Seveso disaster. Italy
1977 Intentional Bioterrorism (individual criminal) Suxamethonium chloride Arnfinn Nesset, the proprietor of a nursing home for the elderly in Norway, faces a notorious criminal case involving the conviction of murdering 22 of his patients. Nesset employed a sinister method, injecting them with curacit, a substance derived from curare. This toxic compound is known for its paralyzing effects on the nervous system and was used by Nesset to carry out his heinous acts of intentional harm. The trial and conviction of Nesset draws considerable attention, raising serious concerns about the safety and vulnerability of elderly residents in care facilities.[13]:22 Norway
Early 1980s Intentional Biological warfare program Multiple Project Coast starts operating as South Africa's covert Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) program. Operational until early 1990s, the program would be found to have developed lethal chemical and biological weapons, including sterilization toxins and concealed poisons, targeting African National Congress political leaders and black township populations. Project Coast would be accused of contaminating water supplies with cholera, aiding Rhodesian troops with anthrax and cholera, and employing toxic agents for political assassinations. Investigations would lead to dismissals and document destruction, with South Africa officially maintaining the program's defensive nature, despite international concerns.[14] South Africa
1984 Bhopal Disaster in India highlights the devastating consequences of chemical accidents.
1985 The 1985 United Nations Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer is held as an international treaty aimed at addressing the environmental and health risks associated with the release of certain chemicals known to deplete the ozone layer. It is a landmark agreement that addresses chemical risks associated with ozone depletion. Austria
1987 Around 100 individuals in India fall ill due to the consumption of wheat products contaminated with mycotoxins, a result of heavy rains.[6]:155 India
1988 Literature (journal) Chemical Research in Toxicology is first issued by the American Chemical Society. United States
1990 During the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists are credited with the first non-state use of chemical weapons during their assault on the East Kiran base of the Sri Lanka Army using commercial chlorine gas. Sri Lanka
1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro emphasizes sustainable development, including chemical safety. Brazil
1993 (January 13) The Chemical Weapons Convention is signed.
1994 The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) initiates a harmonization effort, collaborating with both OECD member nations and several non-member economies. The objective is to standardize the criteria for classifying human health and environmental hazards. Concurrently, a United Nations expert group and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) addresses physical hazards and hazard communication. The outcomes of the OECD's endeavors, presented in 2001, serves as the foundation for the establishment of the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) in 2002.[10]
1997 Al Qaeda first starts researching and experimenting with chemical weapons in Afghanistan, testing phosgene, chlorine and hydrogen cyanide.[15]
1998 (October 25) The United States Congress passes the Chemical Weapons Implementation Act of 1998.[16] United States
1999 Non-intentional The Belgian PCB/dioxin incident occurs when accidental dioxin-contaminated polychlorinated biphenyls are added to recycled fat in animal feeds, affecting over 2500 farms. A monitoring program finds a single PCB oil source (50 kg) with 1g TEQ dioxins. Chickens and reproduction animals show higher concentrations, indicating chick edema disease. Despite some food products exceeding recommended values by over 100 times, adverse effects on the general population are unlikely. The incident exposes metabolic differences in farm animals' PCBs and dioxins elimination. The crisis leads to a major food crisis, political resignations, and international actions, impacting global trade and causing economic losses. The incident highlights the potential dangers of chemical contamination in the food chain, demonstrating the risks associated with the mishandling and introduction of hazardous chemicals into agricultural processes.[17][18][19] Belgium
2000 United States chemical and biological weapons expert Jonathan B. Tucker publishes Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons.
2001 (December) In an attack at Ben-Yehuda street in Jerusalem, explosives detonated by a Hamas suicide bomber contain nails and bolts soaked in rat poison. According to a statement by CIA director George Tenet in 2000, Hamas has pursued a capability to conduct chemical terrorism.
2002 The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) is developed under UN auspices after the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. The GHS, codified in the "Purple Book" at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, becomes a component of the Strategic Approach on International Chemicals Management. The GHS adoption would be gradual, with Japan and New Zealand adopting it in 2008, and the EU ratifying a new legislation based on GHS in 2009. The GHS would be practically introduced by the end of 2010 for substances and before June 2015 for mixtures.[1]:34-35
2020 Visakhapatnam gas leak India
2015 Adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes a goal related to chemical safety.

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The initial version of the timeline was written by Sebastian Sanchez.

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  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 Homburg, Ernst; Vaupel, Elisabeth (1 August 2019). Hazardous Chemicals: Agents of Risk and Change, 1800-2000. Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1-78920-320-2. 
  2. "Porton_Down". www.bionity.com. Retrieved 13 February 2024. 
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  13. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Bendinelli
  14. "What Happened In South Africa? | Plague War | FRONTLINE | PBS". www.pbs.org. Retrieved 6 October 2023. 
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