Death by Dioxin in Venice
By Sheila MacVicar, ABCNEWS Correspondent
Gondoliers in striped shirts and straw hats pole their slim black craft through the canals of Venice. Water splashes at the steps of the Piazza San Marco, runs along the doorsills of the city’s fading palazzos. But water, the lifeblood of Venice, conceals a deadly secret: It’s contaminated with a lethal cocktail of toxins.
"As we investigate," says Gianfrano Bettin, the deputy mayor of Venice, "we are finding a little of everything. Radioactivity, dioxin, heavy metals, mercury, all kinds of industrial waste has gone into the waters of the lagoon."
The pollution comes from petrochemical plants and other factories—some now long out of business—set up on the banks of the lagoon in the suburbs, less than a mile from the city center. For decades, the factories dumped their toxic waste into one of Europe’s most fragile ecological systems. And for decades, civic authorities ignored the pollution, focusing campaigns to "save Venice" on issues more likely to affect tourism, like the threats posed by high water and architectural deterioration. But shocking environmental studies finally forced the civic administration to take notice.
Sleuthing for Pollution
Three years ago, a young researcher for the environmental organization Greenpeace began slipping into the maze of canals around the factories, sampling the water and the sediment. From the bow of a small boat, Fabrizio Fabbri, in his watch cap and parka, points out where he found dioxin levels 15 times higher than the maximum allowable for nonagricultural land. "In terms of quantity, this is the largest toxic landfill in Europe," says Fabbri. "These companies simply discharged tons and tons of sludge, full of pollutants." He points to red mud at the edge of the bank, below one factory, saying the color is telling evidence of the presence of heavy metals. "It was a totally crazy choice," he adds, " to put these plants here." The water in the Venetian lagoon has higher dioxin levels than those found in the Rhine River as it flows through Germany’s industrial zone, and levels up to 50 times higher than those in the Great Lakes.
Problems Were Suppressed
"It’s a very, very serious problem," says Bettin. "It’s like after an apocalypse. People are only now becoming slowly aware of it. For too long, big interests have suppressed this problem, and the city went along with it." Even after studies revealed the pollution levels, and scientists warned of dangers to human health from eating contaminated seafood, little was done. It was only when a worker in one of the factories brought Italian prosecutors his records of illness and death among his co-workers that authorities really began to pay attention.
Worker Blows the Whistle
Gabriele Bortolozzo worked in a plant that used polyvinyl chloride to make plastic bottles and toys. His files, kept in his home for more than 10 years, showed what Italian prosecutor Felice Casson thought might be a work-related pattern of illness and death. Casson launched an investigation. He sent federal police, the equivalent of the FBI, door to door through the suburbs of Venice, looking for workers who were ill, or the survivors of those who had already died. They commissioned more tests of the water, and examined the contents of toxic landfill sites. The Italian authorities concluded that 146 workers had died, and at least 600 more became seriously ill, as a result of exposure to cancer-causing materials in the workplace. The environmental studies confirmed what Greenpeace had claimed, and authorities had dismissed. The prosecutor prepared for trial. "It is documented," says Casson, "that from 1972, the industry knew that these substances were cancerous and could produce a whole series of tumors. They had secretly tested its effects on animals, and even on workers. And they kept the results of those tests secret, and did not protect the workers." Thirty managers of the petrochemical plants have been charged with the Italian equivalent of manslaughter. They are also charged with causing an environmental disaster, and because the toxins from the factory can be found in lagoon shellfish like mussels and clams, and even in fish, they are also charged with food poisoning. If found guilty, they each face 15 years in prison, and their companies will pay enormous fines.
Courtroom Drama Begins
In a huge courtroom, built to look like a school gymnasium, sit rows of black-robed lawyers. As the lead prosecutor, Casson sits directly in front of the three judges. There is no jury, and as the trial is in its early stages, no defendants. But every day, the rows of spectator seats are filled, as relatives of the dead and dying come to watch what they call "their" trial. Some are middle-aged women, dressed in the ubiquitous black of the Italian widow. Young people, in their teens and 20s, the sons and daughters of the workers, fill the back rows. A harassed public relations officer from one the petrochemical companies tries to persuade journalists covering the trial that whatever the problems of the past, the company has changed its policies and cleaned up its act. The journalists do not look convinced.
Widow Wants Justice
Natalina Fassina is one of the widows who attends every day. A vivacious, auburn-haired woman in her 50s, Fassina says that what she wants is "some justice." Her husband, Oliviero, worked for 30 years in the factory. He died just a year after he retired, four months after he was diagnosed with cancer. And when he died, that put an end to the Fassinas’ plan to start a small business and enjoy more time together in the house they had built. "My husband never knew what made him sick. It wasn’t until years after he died, when the investigations began, that we realized his illness was related to his work," she says, as she gently pulls a photograph from her wallet. "What I want," she says, "is for the people responsible to feel, just a little bit, what it is like to lose a father, a brother, a husband." "This is a historic trial," says prosecutor Casson, "because it is examining industrial activity that produced cancerous substances for more than 20 years. This means that we will have to verify and prove the harm done to the people and the environment of Venice."
Tourist Haven Tainted
Investigators continue to find more evidence. A strip of land immediately adjacent to the only bridge leading to Venice is cordoned off with red and white striped tape. A hastily photocopied sign is attached to the fence every few yards. Dated March 13, 1998, it says access to the land is forbidden. The young woman working in the Tourist Information Office right beside the restricted area says she was told the area was filled with radioactive waste and it was "too dangerous" to go in there. Authorities discovered more toxic waste when they began preparing a old landfill site at the conversion to a park. Soil samples showed the ground here, too, was contaminated with more radioactive waste and toxic sludge. Investigators put up a crude orange fence and told residents who used to plant vegetables and herbs there that they should no longer work that land, and most important, should no longer eat what they grew. Local residents say that no one has violated the order, "because everyone is too frightened." "It’s not just those who ate the vegetables," said one man. "We all breathe the air and we don’t know anymore if it is safe."
Are Food Sources Contaminated?
Fish and shellfish from the lagoon are supposed to be off limits, but in the central fish market, vendors are displaying young green crabs, fresh from the lagoon, a delicacy loved by for public health that Venetian authorities asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Atlantic to carry out tests on a sample of 2,000 residents, to try to determine how much long-term damage has been done by exposure to toxins and radioactivity. A center in the United Kingdom is analyzing contamination levels in soil, water, shellfish and locally grown vegetables. "This has created a situation which demands maximum urgency, maximum intervention," says Deputy Mayor Bettin. "That means closing down the production facilities that are incompatible with our environment and the health of those who work in the facilities and those who live nearby." The unions have demonstrated against such closure. They went as far as to occupy a suburban city hall and blockade streets when it was first suggested. The city and the unions are back in discussion, but Bettin says, "The city has said very clearly the pollution must stop and the plants must close. That will not change." The toxins, the dioxin and the radioactive waste and the heavy metals will remain in the environment, still polluting, until they are removed. "The guilty must be identified for the deaths they caused and for the harm done to the environment," says Casson, the prosecutor. And someone, he adds, will have to pay the bill to cleanse the environment. That will be the cost of saving Venice.