Victims of a mass 1981 cooking oil poisoning occupy Madrid museum, threaten suicide

When a previously unrecorded illness erupted in Madrid in 1981, many people in Spain were panicked. It took five weeks and dozens of deaths to understand the cause: adulterated cooking oil. The illness - which came to be known as “toxic oil syndrome” - killed hundreds and left thousands with chronic conditions, many of which are severe.

Four decades later, feeling their grievances were not being heard, a few of those victims occupied a premiere Madrid art museum, Museo del Prado. If their demands were not met, they said, they would all kill themselves by ingesting pills within hours.

Six protesters were seen on Tuesday standing before Diego Velázquez’s famous “Las Meninas” painting holding a sign that read: “40 years poisoned and condemned to live as in 1981 due to the abandonment of the government.”

In a public statement, the Seguimos Viviendo or “We Are Still Alive” group members said they were done with “humiliation” and “abandonment” by the country and government, and that they were sending a “distress call to the world.”

They said that after six hours peacefully waiting and fasting in the “Las Meninas” display room, they would begin ingesting pills if their demands weren’t met - “Because what they have been waiting for these years is that we die to end the problem,” the group’s statement read. They asked for a meeting with the prime minister and money for medical expenses.

The protest began mid-morning, and the protesters “left on their own” after a few hours, the museum’s communications team told The Washington Post. The museum added that it had no advance knowledge of the protest. Reuters reported that the police detained two protesters and others left at around noon. The group did not immediately respond to request for comment.

In 1981, illicitly refined rapeseed oil meant for industrial use was fraudulently sold as olive oil. Ingestion of the oil, which was mostly sold around Madrid, created an abrupt outbreak - killing some 300 people shortly after disease onset. Of around 100,000 people exposed, nearly 20,000 people were found to have clinical disease, many of whom developed chronic conditions, according to a World Health Organization’s study of the condition, which came to be known as “toxic oil syndrome.”

Symptoms of the previously unrecorded disease include limb deformation, immune system destruction and lung failure - along with other conditions. Some victims have been permanently crippled.

In the group’s statement, it says that they chose to protest in the museum because culture has helped many victims endure their daily pain.

In 1989, three judges dismissed murder charges against the oil distributors, causing massive outrage in Spain, the New York Times reported. Twenty-four defendants were fully acquitted, and all 37 accused were found not to have intended to cause death or injury.