ITALY: Poisoned Suburb

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Two years after, the core of Seveso is dead

The streets today are still sealed behind a high fence of yellow plastic panels, like a Berlin Wall of environmental quarantine. Every 20 feet a posted sign warns: CONTAMINATED AREA. NO ADMITTANCE. Some of the telephone lines leading to the shuttered houses lie slack in lush summer growths of hydrangea that bloom unattended. But no matter, because the phones never ring any more. Two years after the disaster known as "Italy's Hiroshima," the core of Seveso is a dead community, and no one knows when—if ever—it will become habitable again.

A parliamentary investigating committee has issued a damning report on Italy's worst ecological disaster. On July 10, 1976, an explosion at the Swiss-owned Icmesa chemical plant discharged a thick white cloud of dioxin, one of the deadliest known poisons, over some 4,000 acres of the small industrial suburb 13 miles north of Milan. As the poison settled on homes and gardens in the following days, thousands of pets died, crops were infected and hundreds of people developed nausea, blurred vision and, especially among children, the disfiguring sores of a skin disease known as chloracne.

Today, according to the report, a five-mile wedge of Seveso has been successfully detoxified, at a cost of $32 million, by government teams that cleared and buried entire acres of plants and even topsoil. Most of the 736 residents who were originally evacuated have been able to return to their homes, but 285 are still locked out of a 215-acre area enclosed by the yellow fence. That inner bulls-eye remains blighted by concentrated "leopard spots" of contamination and continues to defy all attempts at purification. "It may be a wasteland forever—we just don't know what to do," admits a committee member. Even total incineration of the entire area has been rejected for eradicating a poison 1,000 times more toxic than strychnine.

The committee report spares almost no one who was involved in the disaster. The operation of the plant, owned by the Swiss firm Givaudan of the Hoffmann-La Roche chemical and pharmaceutical group, was unsafe to begin with. Company officials waited 27 hours after the accident before notifying municipal officials of the danger. Even then, city and provincial administrators were slow to respond. In separate judicial actions, in fact, ten local officials face possible charges of dereliction of duty.

Miraculously, the contamination has caused no known human death thus far. All but two of the 187 children initially stricken with chloracne have recovered, and delayed-action cases that continue to occur have been responding to medication. Fear of other aftereffects, however, has infected the people psychologically. Medical researchers are concerned that the dioxin could have serious future effects on the livers of those exposed to it. Soon after the explosion, 33 pregnant women underwent therapeutic abortions for fear of malformed births. Since then the birth rate in Seveso has dropped sharply. Building Contractor Ugo Basilico, 41, father of a six-year-old son, explains the sad reason why: "I thought it was about time we had another child, but the doctor says better wait a while. If you have a baby with some defect, the baby is there for life."

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