Seveso, Italy, 1976

The July weather was, as usual, hot and sticky. Nothing else was usual for the area’s inhabitants that summer. With little warning, the authorities had ordered them to evacuate with only the clothes on their backs and a suitcase. Some resisted and tried to bring their pets, but the authorities stopped them and the pets were forced to stay behind.

Most of the evacuees had built their homes in their spare time, either by themselves or with the help of relatives and neighbors. Most had a garden, even a small farm, attached to the house, where they grew vegetables, kept chickens, rabbits (ragout was a favorite dish), ducks, and goats, and tended peach, plum, apricot, and pear trees, all for their own subsistence. Now all of this was taken from them. The area — which became known as the Zone — was cordoned off with barbed wire fencing, nine feet high and some six miles long, and was guarded by armed soldiers. Dead birds fell out of the trees. The pets in the Zone were destroyed.

All of this paled in comparison to the sight of their children’s faces, swollen with pustules and running sores, ridden with black and scarlet pockmarks. The children were taken away and put in camps during the day, to protect them from the dangers in the Zone. Despite protests by the authorities, a number of pregnant women had abortions rather than risk giving birth to newborns with serious deformities because of exposure in the Zone. Their lives had become, as they said, bruttissima, the ugliest kind of life.

An explosion at a chemical plant exposed the people of Seveso, Italy, and the surrounding area, to dioxin.  The exposure was worsened by the company’s failure to advise anyone of the presence of dioxin.  People were assured they were safe, only to be ordered several weeks later to get out and not to take anything with them.  These environmental refugees lived in temporary housing for months, shunned by others, and ever fearful of the effects of the dioxin exposure on their children.  The long-term effects linger to this day.

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