As the result of any type of consumption, there is the consequent waste. Often the waste is benign, sometimes even productive, such as with industrial hemp. At other times, it’s deadly. Such is the case with the manufacturing run-off of the heavy metal industries. (1)
The ILVA steel factory in Taranto, Italy (on the Ionian Sea, which opens to the larger Mediterranean) replaced fishing and tourism as its primary industry in 1965. It is now the region’s largest employer and produces forty percent of Italy’s steel. It’s also responsible for the disastrous pollution of the area’s air, land, and water.
One of the contaminants that result from steel production is dioxin. Dioxins are a group of toxic chemical compounds (Chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin [CDD], Chlorinated dibenzofuran [CDF], and certain polychlorinated biphenyls [PCB]) that are the by-product of combustion. They are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine system, affect reproduction and development, and damage the immune system. (2)
Because they are fat-soluble, dioxins accumulate in animal (including human) fat and are difficult to excrete. ILVA was found responsible for thirty percent of all of Italy’s dioxin emissions in 2002. By 2004, the proportion had grown to eighty-three percent. (3)
The amount of dioxins released by ILVA is so bad that farmers have been banned from raising livestock within a twenty-mile radius, as more than ninety percent of human ingestion of dioxins comes from contaminated meat, fish, and dairy. (4)
When local cows and sheep were found in 2008 to have high toxin levels in their milk and meat from their feed and the air, farmers were ordered to slaughter their herds, numbering in the thousands. (5) A 2015 European Union report states that the ILVA steel plant has been an “area at high risk of environmental crisis” since 1997. Regional pollution became so bad that the Italian government shut down part of the plant in 2012 to reduce toxin emissions. (6)
The Reality of Airborne Pollution
Dioxins and other airborne poisons released during steel production rain down as toxic dust, carried over distance and covering everything in the vicinity. The consequences to local ILVA steel workers have been devastating, with terrifyingly higher-than-average rates of illness and disease:
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“In Taranto, according to experts, between 2004 and 2010 there were on average 83 deaths a year attributable to exceedances of particulate matter in the air, while hospitalizations for cardio-respiratory causes would amount to 648 per year. [ILVA] workers showed excess mortality from malignant disease (+11%), in particular for stomach cancer (+107), pleura (+ 71%), prostate (+50) and bladder (+69%). Among the non-cancerous diseases are found to be in excess neurological diseases (+64%) and heart disease (+14%). The workers with the qualification of employed presented excess mortality for cancer of the pleura (+135%) and brain (+111%). The impairment framework of the health status of the workers of the steel industry is confirmed by the analysis of hospital admissions in excess of hospitalizations for causes cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory.” (7)
One Farmer Fights Back
Vincenzo Fornaro used to raise sheep in Taranto on a farm that has been in his family for generations. After he was compelled to slaughter his herd, Fornaro began to take steps to cleanse the soil of toxins through a process called phytoremediation. His crop for this purpose: hemp.