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‘This factory kills everything’: the red dust of death in Italy’s under-developed south
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‘This factory kills everything’: the red dust of death in Italy’s under-developed south

Everyday, in the neighborhood of Tamburi in Taranto, a coastal city in southern Italy, Teresa Battista cleans the graves in San Brunone cemetery, removing the thick layers of dust that have accumulated over time.

Although she has been diligently trying, the cleaner, who has been employed at the cemetery for 35 years, has not been successful in stopping the marble tombs from getting red scarring. This is due to the exposure to poisonous iron-ore dust.

Even after death, she said, the adjacent steel factory, which since 1965 has been spewing noxious fumes alleged to have caused thousands of cancer deaths, is inescapable.

The majority of individuals interred in the graveyard perished from the sickness. Two of them were Battista’s siblings. “Nearly all of them were youths,” she stated. “This manufacturing plant destroys everything.”

A major steel-producing factory in Italy’s economically struggling southern region, which has faced numerous challenges, is once again receiving attention as the government led by Giorgia Meloni works to prevent its closure.

Teresa Battista cleaning tombs at the San Brunone cemetery in. the Tamburi neighbourhood of Taranto.

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Meloni has recently selected a special commissioner to assume control of the factory on a temporary basis. The plant, formerly known as Ilva but now called Acciaierie d’Italia (ADI), was previously owned by global steelmaker ArcelorMittal since 2018. However, after negotiations fell through, the name was changed.

As the government seeks out potential new investors, the inhabitants of Taranto, particularly those living in Tamburi which is only separated from the factory by a wire fence, share a tale that highlights the conflict between sustaining jobs and preserving life, prioritizing the economy over the environment, and creating a divide between the wealthy and the impoverished.

In the 1960s, a factory was constructed in Taranto, an old city established by the Greeks. This decision came after being turned down by both Bari, the capital of the Puglia region, and the neighboring city of Lecce. To accommodate the large complex, vast amounts of agricultural land and countless olive trees were removed, covering an area nearly three times the size of Taranto.

In its early years, the factory brought economic success to a town that relied on fishing and farming. Employees came from nearby regions or came back from abroad to work there. At its height, the facility manufactured over 10 million tons of steel annually and employed over 20,000 people.

The chimneys with red-and-white stripes, which tower over the city, emitted pollutants that were seen as a normal aspect of daily life. Ex-employees remember having to expel black mucus from their noses. Even children would play with the dust, sometimes coming across it on their pillows in the mornings when windows were left open during the summer. “We thought it was like glitter,” shared Ignazio D’Andria, who owns Mini Bar in Tamburi. “We believed it was a present from the fairies, but in reality, it was toxic.”

The various chemicals released into the ocean, including minerals, metals, and cancer-causing dioxins, severely damaged the city’s mussel fishing industry, which was an important source of economic income.

The number of cancer cases increased, but it wasn’t until 2012 that official data revealed that the death rate in the region was 15% higher than the country’s average. Recent studies have also shown a correlation between the emissions and higher rates of various illnesses including respiratory, kidney, and cardiovascular diseases.

According to a study conducted by Sentieri, a team specializing in tracking diseases, it was discovered that from 2005 to 2012, 3,000 deaths were directly caused by minimal exposure to environmental pollutants. Medical professionals have noted that the prevalence of cancer varies in accordance with the levels of production at the factory.

A study conducted in 2019 by ISS, Italy’s higher health institute, showed that children in Taranto experienced a significantly higher rate of lymphoma in comparison to other regions in the seven years leading up to 2012. Furthermore, another study by Sentieri revealed a higher incidence of childhood cancer in Taranto compared to the rest of Puglia.

In January, healthcare experts in the community urged the government to make health a top priority in their negotiations with the factory owners and take advantage of the chance to improve the deteriorating facility.

Pediatrician Anna Maria Moschetti has shared her research on the impact of the factory on public health with lawmakers at the regional, national, and European level.

Moschetti stated that the proximity of a plant emitting potentially harmful substances, including carcinogens, to residences and in the direction of prevailing winds has resulted in the population being exposed to toxic materials, resulting in documented cases of illness and even death, as reported by the public prosecutor’s office.

Angelo Di Ponzio in front of a mural of his son Giorgio, who died of cancer at 15, by the Italian street-artist Jorit.

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The most vulnerable individuals who reside near the plants and lack the financial means to relocate bear the largest risk.

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However, there have been no alterations. “I have to clean this dust every day,” stated Cinto while tracing her finger along a window frame.

Vaccaro was employed at the factory for a span of three decades. He describes their work as being comparable to that of animals, and presents a picture of a fellow worker visibly covered in dark grime. Vaccaro frequently holds himself accountable for his son’s passing. The couple desires to relocate, however, due to a drastic decrease in their home’s worth to just €18,000 (£15,311), selling is not a viable option.

The factory is facing legal issues, including a manslaughter case from Mauro and Roberta Zaratta. Their son, Lorenzo, passed away at the age of five from a brain tumor. His autopsy revealed metal elements in his brain such as iron, steel, zinc, silicon, and aluminium. The judges are trying to determine if these toxins caused the cancer. Mauro Zaratta, who now resides in Florence, expressed frustration with the government’s decision to keep the factory open despite knowing the risks and the harm it is causing to people.

Currently, the factory hires approximately 8,500 individuals, with most of them commuting from areas outside Taranto. This matter has created significant rifts between those employed at the plant and those impacted by its consequences.

According to Giuseppe Roberto, who spent 30 years working at the factory and is currently leading a class action against it, people claim they rely on the factory to support their families. However, in truth, it was the workers who were providing for the factory and sacrificing their health and the environment in doing so.

The Acciaierie d’Italia steelworks, still known by its former name Ilva, looms behind the Tamburi neighbourhood of Taranto.

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According to Mimmo Mazza, director of Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, the cost of implementing electric furnaces and decarbonising the plant, as suggested by former Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s administration, would be approximately €3-4bn. Mazza questions who would bear this cost and also points out that it would result in reduced employment.

Paintings of children who lost their battle with cancer can be found on numerous walls throughout Taranto, including one of Giorgio Di Ponzio, who passed away at the young age of 15. Angelo, his father, expressed that despite the abundance of natural resources in Taranto, it is a mistake to believe that the factory is necessary for survival. He believes that the government prioritizes their own interests over the well-being of the citizens, showing a lack of concern for the community and those who are affected by sickness.

Source: theguardian.com