It is just a year since an explosion at a chemical plant in Seveso, in Northern Italy, brought a drastic change in the life of the town.
It is just a year since an explosion at a chemical plant in Seveso, in Northern Italy, brought a drastic change in the life of the town. The cloud of poisonous gas dispersed within hours; but the cloud of suspicion and fear still lingers on.
SYNOPSIS: Seveso looks much as it has for the past twelve months: barbed wire sealing off contaminated areas; troops of the Italian army keeping guard over them; houses and factories standing empty and deserted. Workers in protective clothing are out with bulldozers, removing earth that may retain poisonous substances and taking samples away for analysis. But still nobody really knows whether the danger is over and the people can safely go back home.
On July 10th last year, a white cloud of vapour shot up from the chimney of the ICMESA plant -- a subsidiary of the Swiss chemical group Hoffman La Roche. The implications did not become clear until vegetation began to wither about ten days later, and people found hundreds of small animals dead or dying.
Then people, and children in particular, began coming out in a skin disease called chloracne, which produces rashes burns and boils. At least 500 children have suffered form it. The cause has been identified as a poison known as dioxin, which fell in the cloud of vapour.
The army was sent in to seal off the affected areas as soon as the scale of the disaster was realised. People living closest to the factory were evacuated from their homes. It was typical of the mistrust and ignorance of the dangers that some resort hotels were reluctant to receive them for fear of infection.
Throughout the winter, work went on, cutting down trees, killing animals, collecting up contaminated materials in the sealed-off area near the factory known as Zone A. People began to get impatient, tried to get in to recover their possessions, and demanded to know when they might be allowed home. Criticism of the authorities became entangled with local and national politics. Industrial safety and pollution are live political issues in many part of Italy.
Now the regional administration has said that evacuees should be able to go home within a month; but some of them are reluctant to do so. They are not satisfied that it is safe to till their land. Some of the women are still afraid to have children for fear the might be born malformed. There is no great confidence, either, in the official maps which show the areas regarded as having been contaminated. Some people are claiming that traces of dioxin have been found in villages several miles (kilometres) outside the officially designated area.
There are several ways in which pollution might be spread: by wild life; in streams; and particularly by traffic. A main road from Milan to Como runs close to the contaminated area, and this has remained open ever since the disaster.