Profits Before People

At the court of Vicenza, a small, well-to-do town in the northern Italian region of Veneto, a trial has just begun whose significance resounds well beyond its provincial setting. At stake, in fact, is one of the most expansive industrial contamination cases Europe has ever seen. Miteni, a chemical manufacturer based in the foothills of the Venetian Alps, faces prosecution for repeatedly – and over a period of several decades – disposing of toxic substances in the streams and rivers adjacent to its plant. Chemicals have gradually permeated the soil around their manufacturing site, accumulating in groundwater and flowing into aqueducts that serve some twenty municipalities in three different regional provinces. A population of around 350,000 unknowingly ingested poison for years – a veritable example of mass contamination, the latest in a growing catalogue of cases.

It is not just the size of the population involved that renders this trial unique (to give a sense of scale, imagine poisoning the entire population of Cardiff). Veneto is one of Italy’s most prosperous regions; its rolling hills, dotted with vineyards and Renaissance villas, even out into more populated plains to the south where factories, shopping centres, warehouses and motorways are the more usual features of the landscape. For years, the whole of northeast Italy has been a paragon of Italian economic success.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of this case relates to the chemicals under scrutiny: perfluoroalkylated substances, known as PFAS; an acronym all too familiar in Veneto of late, though it remains obscure to many.

Invented in the 1940s, PFAS names around 4000 distinct compounds, assembled by combining specific quantities of fluorine and carbon, and classified according to molecular length. In 1949 the American firm 3M patented two chemicals, known as PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) – ‘long’ molecules with water and grease resistant properties. In 1951, DuPont acquired PFOA, using it as a foundation for its signature Teflon product. PFAS’s versatility proved almost limitless: in Italy, for instance, textile manufacturers Marzotto began importing 3M’s PFOA in 1965, facilitating their entry into the emerging market for waterproof materials. Today, PFAS can be found in non-stick pans, plastic plates and food packaging. They’re used to waterproof leather, in fabrics branded as Goretex or Scotchgard, in fire-fighting foams, clingfilm products, and countless other everyday items.

The harm these substances cause is by now beyond question. Scientific literature on the matter abounds; an EU directive published in 2006 classified PFOS as ‘persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic’. Since 2009, the chemicals have been subject to restrictions according to the terms of an international treaty known as the Stockholm Convention, and in 2016 the International Agency for Research on Cancer identified PFOA as a possible cause of renal and testicular cancer.  

A closer look at the history of PFAS requires us to leave the Venetian hills momentarily and take a detour through the United States – West Virginia, to be precise. From as early as the 1960s, both 3M and DuPont were aware of the potential danger posed by perfluoroalkylated substances. In 1961, DuPont’s researchers observed that the chemicals caused significant swelling to the livers of rats, rabbits and dogs. In 1978, also at DuPont, high concentrations of PFOA were discovered in employees’ blood; it was subsequently noted that a number of workers overseeing the production of Teflon had given birth to infants with defects of the eye. Six years later, the company recorded significant quantities of PFOA in the drinking water used around its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. But none of these studies was ever disclosed to the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They were merely added to an increasingly unsettling cache of company secrets.

It is largely thanks to the residents of Parkersburg that this information is now available. In the early 2000s they began denouncing DuPont, noticing that it had been dumping contaminants directly into the Ohio River. A lengthy legal battle followed these initial accusations, thanks in part to the efforts of tenacious environmental lawyer Robert Billot. DuPont ultimately agreed to settle the matter by paying over $300 million in damages to its neighbours. It was also fined $16.5 million – the most onerous sanction ever issued by the EPA – for withholding information that proved the chemicals’ toxicity and the firm’s own malpractice in handling them.

Arguably the most notable outcome of the litigation was the establishment of the first epidemiological laboratory dedicated to the study of the effects of PFOA exposure. Between 2004 and 2011 the EPA monitored 70,000 people who lived in the environs of the Parkersburg plant. Researchers now seem convinced of a relationship between PFAS and tumours of the testicles and kidneys, thyroid disorders, and various other diseases which, incidentally, are also being observed among the inhabitants of the Venetian provinces more recently in the spotlight.

The Miteni scandal is thus the second case of mass contamination by PFAS that has come to the attention of the public. In Veneto, however, the population in question is five times as numerous as in West Virginia. Considering the pervasiveness of the substances at issue, one can only wonder how many similar cases might emerge. In 2004 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) began investigating the presence of PFAS in the continent’s river basins. The final report, published two years later, revealed the Po as the most polluted by some margin, adding that notable quantities of PFAS were also present in the most populated river basins in the United Kingdom. Whilst the Thames had shown lower than average emission rates compared to other European rivers, its concentration levels were amongst the highest.

The report forced the Italian Ministry of the Environment to commission an investigation from the National Research Council, which identified the levels of PFAS in Veneto’s rivers as the most alarming. It was at this point that the local Environmental Protection Agency was able to identify Miteni’s plant as the source of the PFAS emissions. Their investigation, published in 2013, was the first public revelation of widespread PFAS contamination in northern Italy.

The point we can’t lose sight of is that the plant had been operating since 1965. Back then it was known as Rimar, short for Ricerche Marzotto. It had begun producing PFOA for its parent company’s textile business, but the demand for the newly-invented compounds was such that in a short period of time the firm transitioned from textiles to the production of intermediate components for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. In 1988 Marzotto sold the chemical plant to a partnership between Mitsubishi and the Italian company Enichem (giving the firm its current name, Miteni). The latter ultimately offloaded its stake in 1996, and in 2009 Mitsubishi sold the plant for the symbolic sum of  €1 to the International Chemical Investors Group (ICIG), an investment fund based in Luxembourg.

In all this time, contempt for environmental safety at Miteni remained constant, regardless of its ownership. For half a century it continued to spew chemicals without much afterthought, often using the industrial park the plant itself was built on as a dumping ground. Groundwater disperses at an average speed of 1.2 kilometres per year; as time elapses the contaminated area therefore expands. By now, the zone at highest risk reaches towns and villages within 40km of the plant.  

Admittedly, few ever paid attention to the issue during the 1960s and 70s. There would be accidents every once in a while, after which everything seemed to return to normal. As a testament of this routine, the older generation of residents here remember how the river Agno was often tinted with the pigments used by Marzotto by the time it reached towns and villages downstream from its factory in Valdagno.

That Marzotto operated unchallenged for years was not coincidental. In the decades following the Second World War, industrial development was the absolute priority for the European economy; Italy in particular was emerging from a history of backwardness and rural poverty. Between the 1950s and 1970s the steel, chemical and automobile industry transformed the country into an industrialized nation. Factories employed millions of people, creating a middle and working class accustomed to a certain quality of life. The toll of this wellbeing on the environment was hardly on the agenda. This is not a purely Italian story; the same occurred in Europe, Japan and the Americas. Pollution was visible, of course, but was considered collateral damage – a price worth paying for prosperity. Earth, water and air were entirely conceded to industry, bequeathed without obligations. Unions were preoccupied with altogether different questions: wages, the redistribution of income and social security. Only later did the environment – and its obvious connection public health – become a point of contention.  

Even when emission regulations became more stringent in the decades that followed, many firms continued to circumvent them. In the case of Miteni, the court’s findings reveal that between 1990 and 2009, Mitsubishi commissioned numerous investigations into the plant they had acquired in Veneto, knowing as a result that underneath it lay numerous pollutants, including PFAS. But just as DuPont had done, it chose not to disclose this to public health agencies – a cover-up that constitutes one of the charges the company will have to answer for in court.

Yet the presence of PFAS in Veneto’s drinking water would never have reached public attention – nor perhaps even a court of justice – if it hadn’t been for the pressure mounted by local residents. When the scandal was revealed in 2013 local authorities ran for cover, installing new filters in its aqueducts to mitigate the risks. The regional government ordered Miteni to install barriers to contain the toxic refuse, and to plan a comprehensive drainage operation around the site of its plant (the former injunction was respected only partially, and regarding the latter a project has yet to materialize eight years on). It also imposed lower than average limits on the presence of PFAS in drinking water, sparking an altercation with national authorities who at the time hadn’t even registered the issue. Locals might have thought the nightmare was over; only after a number of years did they realise this was far from the case.

Whilst it might be clear today that PFAS have caused an environmental and public health disaster of dizzying proportions, breaking the silence surrounding the case has proved no easy task. A handful of doctors from the Italian national health service were the first to notice startling rates of illness amongst workers and the general public in the affected region, leading local environmental associations to begin researching potential causes. After a randomised survey of local residents revealed disturbing levels of PFAS in the blood of the adult population, small civic initiatives and public assemblies began convening, along with the first protests in front of Miteni’s offices.

Under pressure, the regional health body initiated its first ‘health surveillance plan’ for residents of the most contaminated zone born between 1951 and 2002, beginning with the younger section of the population. In the first months of 2017 families in the province of Vicenza discovered that their children had quantities of PFOA in their blood up to ten or twenty times those considered safe. It was therefore possible to conclude that despite the installation of new filters, water remained unsafe to drink. Nobody had thought to inform locals of this.

For the inhabitants of the small Venetian province this came as a shock. It was only then that many discovered that those unpronounceable, colourless substances were suspected carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, with the capacity to interfere with hormones, affecting growth, development and reproduction. A group named ‘Mothers Against PFAS’ quickly formed; an association of parents representing their poisoned teenagers. They began studying chemistry and collecting data relevant to their growing case against Miteni. ‘The more we studied’, one of them recalls, ‘the more our rage grew.’

Somewhat paradoxically, Miteni continued its operations throughout this whole period. To be sure, it no longer produced the now incriminated PFOA and PFAS; it had, however, moved onto a new group of perfluoroalkylated compounds with shorter molecules known commercially as C6O4 or GenX. Several studies indicate that the latest generation of PFAS are no less harmful than their predecessors, even if official regulations have yet to provide clarity. Regardless, between 2014 and 2017 Miteni extracted GenX from wastewater imported from plants owned by Chemour (DuPont’s successor) in the Netherlands, until local authorities there warned the Italians of the potential risks involved. Shortly thereafter Miteni declared bankruptcy.

It is now clear that both the initial Japanese group and the subsequent proprietors from Luxembourg continued to produce PFAS at the plant up until they could guarantee handsome profits, without spending a penny on shielding the neighbouring population from the consequences of production. Then, as regulations became more and more demanding, and having squeezed all possible returns from the plant, they let it go under, dumping the cleaning costs onto the local community.  

This is precisely what makes the case of this small province in Veneto paradigmatic. A single thread ties DuPont to the Italian textile industry, Japanese investors and speculators in Luxembourg. Binding them is the toxic logic of profit; disdain for the safety of workers and the sacrifice of collective well-being at the altar of immediate, maximised gain. 

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti

Read on: Sharachandra Lele’s contribution to NLR’s eco-strategy debate.