Closeups/The Environment

The condemned of Seveso

The lingering tragedy of an Italian town

Arturo Gonzalez July 25 1977
Closeups/The Environment

The condemned of Seveso

The lingering tragedy of an Italian town

Arturo Gonzalez July 25 1977

The condemned of Seveso

Closeups/The Environment

The lingering tragedy of an Italian town

Arturo Gonzalez

Il tossico—the poison—that’s all they talk about at Trattoria da Armando, the village cantina on the square just outside the banned zone which is guarded by junglesuited Italian troops with strict orders to keep the villagers of Seveso from reentering their homes. About how il tossico has put poor Alicia Senno back into the hospital again, her face blotched red like a split-open water melon. About how il tossico made Maria, Carmella and Giovana go to London to have abortions because the hospital committee would not give them permission in Italy and they were afraid il tossico would make them bear children with cleft palates or brain damage or worse. About the cow that just died with its throat burnt open by il tossico and how the rest of the herd is dying and hardly a normal calf has been born since the factory blew up.

Almost ignored by the labyrinthine Italian medical bureaucracy, living like refugees just a maddening few minutes from their own homes, kept away from their farms and belongings by gun-toting troops and barbed wire, the confused citizens of Seveso, near Milan, sip their white, oily grappa, worry and wait.

“Seveso,” sighs the region’s health minister, Signor Vittorio Rivolta, “is our own little Hiroshima.” Only Seveso’s deadly cloud was ice-cream-cone shaped, not a mushroom. Signora Wanda Conte, whose house is just 500 yards from the Icmesa chemical plant where the explosion took place, remembers seeing the cloud distinctly at 12.20 p.m. on July 10 when it puffed out of the factory roof. “It went north first, then the wind started blowing it south toward us,” she tells questioners. “We didn’t think very much about it then. That place was always sending up stinks. My two daughters and I just tried to close the curtains as best we could to keep the smell out. But Vittorio, my husband, and my niece, Maria—they were outside in the garden. And though we didn’t know it then, il tossico was touching their skin, going into their noses and mouths.”

That July evening a medical nightmare for the citizens of Seveso was born. Headaches, blinding ones. Nausea. The beginnings of pussey, runny sores on skin areas that had been dusted by il tossico. Six months later, this affliction continues. “Alicia gets better for a while,” says Giuseppina Senno, of her four-year-old daughter, “and then her pretty little face swells up and breaks out all over again. She’s just had to make another visit to the hospital. So many doctors from Italy and

all over the world have worked on her face and hands that she screams at the first sight of a white smock. And they tell us this might go on for 20 years. Where will my little girl ever find a husband if her face will always be an open wound?”

The spawning point for il tossico is a nondescript, seven-building industrial complex, called Icmesa which provided employment for about 170 local citizens, mostly uneducated migrants from Venice who had settled in this semi-industrialized

suburb of Milan. (Icmesa is owned by Hoffmann-La Roche, a Swiss-based multinational company that ranks as the world’s number one producer of prescription drugs. Its biggest sellers in Canada and the United States are the tranquilizers Valium and Librium.) The plant has been there since 1934, originally making harmless coloring and pharmaceutical products, then enlarging in recent years to produce trichlorophenol, used in medicine and cosmetics and also in herbicides such as those the U.S. Air Force employed to defoliate large areas of the Vietnamese jungles.

Somehow, on that Saturday in July, the process by which the chemicals were pro-

duced “ran wild.” The mix boiled up and popped a safety valve on an overheated reactor. Normally, such a valve is always positioned so that if it blows the emission is vented into an enclosed container. In safety-lax Italy, no such emergency protection existed, and the creamy-grey fumes escaped directly into the sky over Seveso, rapidly settling back down to earth over a 650-acre area, and onto the homes, the skin, the crops and the farm animals of about 1,000 unsuspecting Italians.

The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare lists about 21,000 chemicals as being toxic. About 1,950 of these are suspected of causing cancer and 250 thought to produce birth defects. Among the most lethal, on all counts, is dioxin— and this was the tossico pumped out through the Icmesa safety valve into the Italian skies.

Almost a week after the dioxin cloud first dusted Seveso, with close to 600 victims being treated for gangrenous-looking faces and hands, the slow-moving Italian health authorities ordered an evacuation of the contaminated area. Wives crying, men protesting, armed troops cordoned off a two-kilometre by 700-metre area and herded families off to nearby hotels and holiday camps. In most cases, the victims unwittingly brought their chemical infection with them, evacuating in contaminated clothes, driving out in cars covered with the lethal dust. Doctor Anne Walker, a dermatologist, said, “I would have evacuated everyone in Seveso and not allowed them to take anything with them, not even their clothes. Then I would have sealed off the area, if necessary forever. Only this way could you be sure of preventing further dioxin contamination.”

“Because the poison is invisible, it’s hard to convince the people they must stay away from the area,” says Doctor Giuseppe Ghetti, the local health officer. “We’ve had angry homeowners breaking through the barriers and reoccupying their houses. In some cases, the troops have turned a blind eye and let people back in to get a document or some personal possession. We’re attempting to build a fence around the zone, but the people are very angry and feel we’re trying to make lepers out of them. They’ve said they’ll blow up the autostrada, our highway through the area, if we don’t stop building that damn fence.”

In a sense, the humble citizens of Seveso are already lepers, behind their zona inquinata—contaminated zone—signs. Local furniture factories can no longer sell their products, as customers fear dioxin infection. Farmers have been unable to market their harvests. People from near, but not in, the affected area recently went on holiday, and when the innkeeper saw their hometown listed in the hotel registration book he asked them to keep it a secret for fear of frightening off other guests. Waiters now seat locals in remote corners of restaurants and serve wearing gloves. “I fear it will be hard for our young girls and men

ever to marry outside the Seveso area,” sighs one mother. “What Italian wants to marry someone who might not be able to bear normal children because of il tossicoT’

For Seveso’s victims, life has been a constant battle with chloracne, the ugly skin poisoning caused by dioxin. British chemist Donald Lee, who has visited some of the infected, reports: “The skin gets very oily at first, often starting at the nose and then working down over the cheeks and neck. The skin looks as if it has been smeared with melted butter. Several weeks later huge blackheads follow, each giving off a putrid odor. Then the infection subsides— only to break out again. Some cases have persisted for up to two decades.

“And then there are other symptoms: continued nausea, bowel disturbances and intestinal gas, blinding headaches, loss of vigor and drive and periods of almost psychotic anger; pains in the kidneys and liver; abnormally high cholesterol levels. And, strangely, black hairs gowing out from where the rashes were.” A distressing prognosis for the more than 500 Seveso victims who, so far, have had chloracne eruptions on their bodies.

But the suffering dioxin has imposed on the living is pale compared with the terrors it holds for the unborn. Seveso is significant because it represents the first dioxin industrial accident to affect women. Doctor Joan Spyker of the University of Virginia says of chemicals and fetuses, “The placenta is a limited barrier. Molecules of almost all substances can cross the placenta, so nearly all chemicals entering the pregnant woman through ingestion, inhalation or skin absorption will be found in the fetus. Teratogens such as dioxin—substances that cause abnormalities in offspring—may have a special affinity for developing brain centres”.

There were, as best it can be tabulated, 113 Italian women in the Seveso region who were from one to three months pregnant at the time the dioxin boiled up into the air. Almost 50 local women have had spontaneous miscarriages, a rate far higher than normal. At such centres as the Margiagalli obstetrics clinic, Italian doctors have been busily taking series of blood tests trying to see just how much dioxin these women are now carrying in their bloodstreams.

Doctor Ton That Tung, a North Vietnamese professor of clinical surgery at Hanoi’s Viet Due Hospital, who treated victims of the American defoliation program in Vietnam, says that his records indicate 300 out of every 1,000 people sprayed died as a result. No wonder the

World Health Organization’s cancer expert, Professor Lorenzo Tomasi, says records should be kept on the pregnant Seveso women for as long as they live. Already some Seveso victims, as many as 1,000, are showing signs of bone marrow damage which may lead to leukemia in later life.

Close to 30 Seveso women have had clinical abortions, a surprisingly high number in Catholic Italy. Permission came from Prime Minister Andreotti who authorized special commissions to review each abortion request from a medical and psychological point of view. The Church frowned. One priest was heard muttering, “Any village girl who even went to the movies once in Seveso was up there in front of the board asking for an abortion. Disgraceful.”

Some of the women complained that the board’s questioning was frequently rude and accusatory. “It was just another ordeal; why do we have to go through so many?” sighed one of the mothers-to-be. Several of the women turned down ultimately went to Switzerland or London to have the operation without asking any more permission; most of the approved abortions were performed by Doctor Francesco d’Ambrosio in a nearby clinic.

What is still unknown, and the subject of much angry talk around the bar at the Albergo da Armando, is how much heartache and suffering could have been avoided if Icmesa and Hoffmann-La Roche, the drug company that owns it, had acted more swiftly once the accident happened, to warn victims to flee the area. Carl Oppenheimer, a leading U.S. ecologist, complains, “The details of the accident are not available; I don’t know why.” “The factory tried to hide the situation,” accuses Doctor Rivolta. Says Doctor Al Burlinghame, the University of California’s leading expert on dioxin, “It seems from here that the authorities are more concerned about getting the mess swept up than finding out what is actually there, so that meaningful followup can be carried out.”

Whatever the reasons, medical investigation reveals that it took the firm two full days to inform authorities that an accident involving dangerous dioxin had occurred. And Seveso’s workers were actually allowed to work inside the plant for several days after the explosion in the midst of considerable contamination, until evacuated. “We had to call a strike to get management to talk to us about the explosion,” growls Antonio Chiappini, the local union leader. “Management kept saying they were too busy to see us. And then they canceled our regular fortnightly works meetings. This made us really angry.”

The Italian government clearly thinks that Icmesa was covering up, even as the deadly dust was settling over the countryside. Three of the firm’s executives. Herig Zwehl, Paolo Poletti and Giovanni Adice are under arrest and Italy has threatened to seize all Hoffmann-La Roche’s consider-

able Italian assets unless the firm fully compensates all involved for the disaster. An initial reparation of $2.5 million was exchanged December 1. Doctor Adolf Jann, the firm’s president in Zurich, says sadly that occasional accidents such as these are inevitable, “unless one wants to close down chemical factories throughout the world, chemical factories that have saved millions of human lives.”

But such high level philosophizing means little to the humble citizens of Seveso, marooned in their refugee camps, unable to work, being prodded and poked by wave after wave of doctors, psychiatrists, industrial safety experts and visiting scientists. What, they ask, is going to happen to their homes, their tiny pieces of land, their livestock? There are almost as many solutions as problems.

The Italian government’s official position is that the town is to be demolished, the foliage incinerated at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the 370 most contaminated acres completely walled in. “The plant will never work again,” adds Doctor Rivolta, “even if it were making sweets for children, no one would want them after this.” Napalm and flamethrowers have been considered as possible tools to use in Seveso’s demolition, but rejected as being too hit-or-miss. A Vietnamese technique for washing the land in an emulsion has been considered and rejected. Dead animals in the fields have to be specially carried away otherwise buzzards will eat them, ingest the poison and carry it further afield.

One thing seems certain; the town of Seveso will become a barren valley eventually. All previous evidence from similar accidents shows that dioxin defies all man’s attempts to eliminate it. A German plant blew up in 1953, and eight years later the ruins still contained too much dioxin for worker safety. An Amsterdam plant exploded in 1963, and they had to seal the rubble in cement before dropping it to the bottom of the sea. A 1968 blast in a British factory was satisfactorily cleaned up only after the debris was buried 140 feet down a disused mine shaft. Like Pompeii, Seveso is doomed.

Meanwhile, the pathetic citizens of Seveso listlessly play cards in their refugee centre, gather at the café to look over the barbed wire at their abandoned homes, curse multinational industry in general and their faltering government in particular. Painfully, the Seveso villagers have become aware that they are helpless pawns in a technological puzzle not even the scientists understand. “What they are is human guinea pigs,” admits Professor Francesco Pocchiari, director of Italy’s National Institute of Health.

According to Signor Cesare Golfari, president of Italy’s Lombardy region in which Seveso lies, “Seveso is a warning to all the advanced countries of the world to take another look at their industry. We have to see if there are limits beyond which mankind cannot go.”