Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Seveso, Italy, 1976

Uncertainty dominated the environmental disaster at Seveso.  The uncertainties were manipulated by the polluting company and exacerbated the suffering of the residents of Seveso, as happened in Minamata. 

Italy’s slack environmental regulation invited companies to pay less attention to their operational safety.  The company, but not the residents living nearby nor the local authorities, knew the dangers of the products and by-products, including dioxin, manufactured at the Seveso plant.  When something went wrong, only the company could have alerted the residents and local authorities to those dangers. The company determined that the dioxin results were too inconsistent and unpredictable to determine with certainty the scope and geographical reach of the dioxin contamination.  But these results were based on limited sampling, chosen by the company.  The company then used the uncertainty, which it created, to avoid informing the authorities of the presence of dioxin and to ignore the advice that it received to relocate everyone affected.  Only when Dr. Cavallaro demanded to know whether the chemical release contained dioxin did the company admit it.

The company had no right to make determinations about the nature or extents of the risks to people as a result of the discharge of dioxin-contaminated air.  That determination was the responsibility of the public authorities.  But the authorities were stymied by the uncertainties inherent in the situation and manufactured by the company.  Based on the initial assurances that the area was safe, and on the failure of the company to inform the authorities of the presence of dioxin, it was two weeks after the explosion before the authorities decided on a limited relocation.  During this two-week period, residents remained exposed to the dioxin and ate contaminated food.  Even then the determination was too cautious.  Very soon after the boundaries for relocating residents were established, further sampling results indicated that the area of risk was much wider and the boundaries had to be expanded.

The people directly affected by the dioxin release were, of course, the ones most disturbed by all the uncertainties.  When they first experienced the contaminated air, they treated it as just another intrusion on their lives from one of the many industrial facilities in the area — a price to be paid for the jobs that the factories provided.  Imagining that the contaminated air carried substantial risks for them and their children was perhaps too difficult.  But then birds died, rabbits sickened, and children developed horrible pustules and other skin deformities.  Clearly this was not just another assault on their environment.   They were assured that everything was safe.  Two weeks later they were told to pack only what they could carry and to get out of their homes and neighborhood.  No one could tell them how long they would be relocated, nor even if they would be returning to their homes, or whether their homes would even be there.  They had to live in crowded temporary accommodations, along with others who were suffering from similar illnesses and deep anxieties.  When they ventured out from this group, they were treated as contaminated themselves, again like the victims in Minamata.  Being dislocated from everything that looks, feels, and smells familiar is traumatic.  As a Portuguese proverb instructs, “To change one’s habits has the smell of death.”

All these uncertainties were compounded by the questions about long-term, as-yet-to-be-seen consequences of the dioxin exposure.  Would their babies be deformed, would they or their children develop cancers in ten, twenty, thirty years? Many chose the troubling alternative of abortion.  The uncertainty about the effects of environmental disasters can be more debilitating that living through the disastrous event itself, just as waiting to hear the results of our own health tests can produce more anxiety, even downright fear, than the illness itself.

For those who were not relocated and stayed in their homes in areas B and R, there was likely some comfort in believing that they were not at risk.  That particular certainty was misleading.  Some twenty years later, studies suggest that staying in place subjected them to risks of increased disease from the exposure to dioxin.

The anger that followed the explosion, and the way the company and authorities reacted to the explosion, spilled over into vigilantism with attacks on and even killing of company personnel.  More rational changes to the legal regime also followed.  Italy’s national health care system was reformed, especially with regard to exposures to toxic chemicals.  In the international arena, the European Economic Community, now European Union, passed legislation — the Seveso Directive —to control the transnational shipment of toxic wastes.  These legal reforms are a way of addressing the anxieties and uncertainties that follow environmental disasters.  At least if collective action is taken to address some of the factors that caused the disaster, there is some comfort that other disasters can be avoided.  Of course, if no one enforces the tougher laws then the comfort is ephemeral.


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