Houston Chronicle, 28-06-1998
Italy develops a case for manslaughter because workers breathed vinyl chloride
By JIM MORRIS
VENICE, Italy-In America, the allegation would be gross negligence. The proceeding would be civil, not criminal, and only money would be at stake.
In Italy, the wiliflil exposure of workers to cancer-causing chemicals has been given another name: manslaughter.
Thirty-one former executives of two Italian chemical companies are standing trial and may go to jail for ignoring warnings and allowing their employees to breathe horrific amounts of vinyl chloride and its relative, ethylene dichioride, inside a plant at Porto Marghera on the western shore of the Venice Lagoon. "Cagionavano il delitto di strage," the indictment reads. "They caused the crime of massacre." More than 150 former workers at the plant -- owned first by Montedison, then Enichem -- have died of cancer since 1973, and another 600 or so are thought to be suffering from work-related illnesses. The defendants also are accused of polluting the lagoon with dioxin, a powerful carcinogen. "People still collect shellfish from the lagoon and sell it to restaurants in Venice," said Fabrizio Fabbri, a Rome-based organizer for the environmental group Greenpeace. "The bottom sediment is like a slimy, black tar."
The trial, a criminal proceeding that also holds~the possibility of civil damages, began in March and is expected to last a year. It already has had an impact.
In late May, most of the 500 or so individual plaintiffs in the case -- sick workers and relatives of those who died -accepted a $36.5 million settlement offer from the two companies, a development that all but emptied the courtroom. It was an extraordinary concession on the part of Italian industry.
"Social consciousness is changing," the lead prosecutor, Felice Casson, said in an interview. "This case is contributing heavily to that."
Many of the Porto Marghera men who have died or are ailing started at the plant in the 1950s and '60s. "These men were on the front lines of a war, only they didn't know it," said Fiamengo Bruna, whose 56-year-old husband, Ido Bettin, died of cancer 10 years ago. "It was a war without guns. They had no means of defending themselves." Oliviero Saretta's children used to joke that he was "radioactive" when he came home from work. "He had to wash himself and change his clothes at the plant," said Saretta's wife, Natalina Fassina. "In spite of that he still smelled of chemicals." Saretta died of cancer, at 58, in 1987.
Nicola Palmieri, general counsel for Milan-based Montedison, said that the company's settlement with the workers and their families should not be construed as an admission of liability. "These people have suffered," Palmieri said. "We do not believe we should drag them through extended litigation, through the very unpleasant rituals of testimony."
Federico Stella, an attorney representing Enichem's parent, Rome-based EM, declined comment.
Fabbri views the 63 billion-lira settlement as nothing more than a shrewd public-relations move. "They want to cut out the biggest part of the plaintiffs to reduce attention on the trial," he said.
Montedison, in particular, had good reason to want a lower profile. The company - which operated the Porto Marghera plant from 1966 to 1987 (although EM acquired the property in 1983)- had ample evidence of vinyl chloride's hazards. In the early 1 970s, it was one of four sponsors of animal research in Italy that demonstrated carcinogenic effects at low levels of exposure. At the same time, documents show, Montedison and other European manufacturers formed an alliance with American companies such as Dow Chemical and Union Carbide, trading health information about vinyl chloride and at one point signing a secrecy agreement forbidding the disclosure of research findings. "The Americans should fear this case," Casson said. "If this (legal theory of manslaughter) should be exported, it could be very dangerous for them. All of them were involved in keeping the worker exposure limits as high as possible."
The prosecution was motivated by two main sources: Greenpeace, which has campaigned internationally against the family of chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons, and Gabriele Bortolozzo, a former Montedison and Enichem worker killed in a cycling accident in 1995.
Bortolozzo had begun reading about vinyl chloride in the 1970s. By the 1980s, many of his contemporaries at the plant had died or were dying of cancer; he started collecting death certificates and talking to widows. In 1985, he was isolated by Montedison in a dusty warehouse - punishrnent, he believed, for his obstinacy. Bortolozzo retired in 1990 but continued his quest. In 1994, he captiyated Casson with an elaborate tale of corporate indifference. For this Bortolozzo was ridiculed by the trade unions, with which he already had a strained relationship, and others who saw him as a threat to the Porto Marghera economy.
Casson spent the next three years collecting internal documents and combing the files of some 7,000 workers. In 1997, he charged the former Montedison and Enichem executives with precipitating human and environmental disasters, disdaining studies and warnings about conditions in the plant. The indictment issued by the Tribunale di Venezia specifically mentions the Italian animal-research program in the early 1 970s, as well as a plant audit conducted by the University of Padua in 1975 and 1976. The audit detailed a "grave sanitary situation." The upshot of the pervasive management neglect became apparent last year, when Italy's National Institute of Health reported that it had found statistically significant excesses of a number of cancers -- including liver, brain and lung -- in a mortality study of people who had worked at the plant between 1956 and 1995.
Bortolozzo would not have been surprised at the institute's revelations; he had written of a cancer epidemic years before. "The real mortality from (vinyl chloride) is different from the 'official" one," he asserted in a report published by an Italian magazine, Medicina Democratica , in 1994. "The data on deaths from angiosarcoma (an obscure cancer of the liver tied to vinyl chloride exposure) given by public bodies and companies are not reliable. Among those dead at Montedison because of vinyl chloride, only three have been officially recognized." He continued: "Montedison has always had a state-of-the-art medical infrastructure, but with only one purpose: maintain the physical efficiency of the workers for production reasons. The message of the company was, 'Look, there's nothing bad, really.' As a matter of fact, they keep (people) working in the same place. This is fascism." Bortolozzo's daughter, Beatrice, and son, Gianluca, are among the few plaintiffs who refused to settle with the chemical companies. "We would never accept their money," Beatrice said. "This factory has stolen husbands, stolen fathers. You can't put a value on the life of a person."
Two Montedison retirees in their 60s, neither of whom wished to be quoted by name, said in an interview that they blame the company for the demise of most of their friends and their own poor health. Each has been plagued by sexual dysfunction, liver abnormalities and a numbing of the extremities, which becomes more pronounced in cold weather. Cancer is always in the back of their minds. Although it was clear by 1974 that vinyl chloride was carcinogenic, the men said, there was no monitoring in the plant - which made both vinyl chloride monomer and polyvinyl chloride resin - until the early 1 980s. "We tried not to think about it," one said. "We had to work, and we had three choices: Leave Italy, go to the factory, or do outlaw activities." He added, however, that he would not allow his son to work for Montedison. "I would have killed him myself before I would have let him do that." For many years, the retirees said, vinyl chloride levels inside the plant were staggering, reaching a potentially explosive 40,000 parts per million near the reactors, where the liquid monomer was turned into resin.
There is no reason to believe that conditions were much better in U.S. plants prior to 1974, when the government imposed strict new limits on vinyl chloride. As late as 1973, for example, an average of one employee per quarter was overcome by vinyl chloride vapor at a Conoco PVC plant in Aberdeen, Miss., according to a company document. This would indicate levels in excess of 15,000 ppm.
Both American and European manufacturers had access to data generated by an Italian oncologist, Dr. Cesare Maltoni, who in July 1971 began a series of animal experiments on vinyl chloride that lasted a decade. The research was sponsored by Montedison and three other chemical companies, Imperial Chemical Industries of England, Solvay of Belgium and Rhone-Progil of France. Maltoni knew by the fall of 1972 that vinyl chloride could produce tumors in rats -- notably, angiosarcoma -- at levels as low as 250 ppm. There was disagreement, however, about whether this fmding was conveyed to the U.S. government. The Chemical Manufacturers Association and its British counterpart, the Chemical Industries Association, said that the information was passed on to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health by manufacturers at a meeting on July 17, 1973-- six months before three angiosarcoma deaths were reported by the B.F. Goodrich Chemical Co. in Louisville, Ky. NIOSH said it wasn't told. The agency's surveillance director, William Lloyd, became so enraged at the suggestion that MOSH had sat on the Maltoni data that he went on British television and called the industry officials "damned liars." In fact, the American companies had agreed in 1972 not to divulge any of Maltoni's findings without the Europeans' permission. Documents show that two of Montedi son's top medical officials in the 197 Os, Emiho Bartalini (a defendant in the trial) and Tiziano Garlanda, provided confidential information to members of the CMA's vinyl chloride panel before the chemical was openly acknowledged to be a carcinogen. Dr. Theodore Torkelson, a retired Dow toxicologist who was on the panel at the time, said that the secrecy pact has been misinterpreted. Its intent, he said, was merely to prevent the premature release of data. "They didn't want somebody going off half-cocked," Torkelson said of the Europeans. The agreement held until Goodrich revealed the Louisville angiosarcoma deaths in January 1974. In the months afterward, many wondered why Maltoni's research hadn't been taken more seriously. Now 68, Maltoni explored this still-sensitive subject during an interview at his laboratory, incorporated into a 15th-century castle near Bologna. In the early years, he said, he was virtually alone in his contention that vinyl chloride should be tightly controlled in the workplace. "The relevance of my work was not perceived," Maltoni said. "At that time, the philosophy was, 'Who cares about animal data? We want human data.' They were ready to attack me." Louisville, he said, demonstrated that "animals may be highly predictive of an effect in humans." Ahd yet many industries and government bodies still require after-the-fact human evidence - decades-long epidemio logical studies of dead workers - before they feel compelled to act. "This is a tragedy," Maltoni said.
Montedison's failure to respond to what was universally described as solid research by Maltoni is one of the chief issues in the Venice trial. "They knew for sure," prosecutor Casson said of the company. "They commissioned the work." Said Montedison counsel Palmieri: "We knew that the product had some effect on health. We don't know exactly what happened (at Porto Marghera), whether there is causation. These workers may have contracted their illnesses in the workplace. Probably not."