A Shakespearean Tragedy in Modern-Day Verona

Reflections by a Venetian on why governments don’t do their best to protect people’s health from chemical pollution.

By Giulia Carlini, Staff Attorney
By Giulia Carlini, Project Attorney

I was born in the beautiful north-Italian region Veneto — the same region where Verona is located, the city of Romeo and Juliet. This spring, though, a toxic pollution scandal shattered into pieces my romantic memories of the place where I grew up.

A quarter million people living in Veneto have been affected by water pollution from the production of a class of toxic chemicals (PFAS). One specific compound is PFOA — the key ingredient in Teflon non-stick cookware, which is known to contribute to higher risks of cancer, diabetes, digestive problems, and reproductive diseases.

In response, my regional government and the national government decided to spend EUR 1.5 billion to evaluate the consequences of this contamination on citizens’ health. A small-scale study has already concluded that people have high levels of these toxic chemicals in their blood. I haven’t lived in the area for a number of years myself, but I am worried that my parents, siblings, and friends could be affected.

The company responsible for this pollution Miteni has dumped these chemicals in the water since the 1960s. Chemical giants such as 3M and DuPont have bought some of these toxic chemicals, which are used in a wide range of products, such as cell phones, pizza boxes, and furniture.

Why do governments fail to protect us from toxic pollution?

The European Commission will soon put forward a new law for a Europe-wide restriction of some of the chemicals that polluted my region, yet public interest organizations (including the one I work for) have voiced loud concerns that the proposal would be toothless.

Many governments consider chemical laws as “costs to business” and “barriers to trade.” They ignore the fact that without these laws, these “costs” are borne by people and the public budgets instead.

That’s because the chemical industry plays a huge role in shaping public policy that regulates (or not) toxic chemicals. Recently, the UK Government was embroiled in a scandal that exposed just how willing governments pander to corporate interests.

When responding to a proposal by the UN Environmental Agency to restrict the use of a certain flame retardant, the UK Government literally copied-and-pasted the submission of the association representing the UK’s defense industry, as reported by the environmental news service ENDS Europe.

Today, with the markets recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, governments continue to prioritize industry interests under the misguided thinking that this would stimulate jobs and growth.

However, the actions of governments externalize business costs onto us, the citizens. We pay for these lower business costs with our health, with the contamination of the environment we live in, and eventually with the taxes that we pay to cover the Government’s expanding health budgets.

Again and again, like a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy, we are living yet another story of the gradual self-destruction of our lives and the socio-political structures in which we live.

Should politicians prioritize short-term perceived economic gains for certain economic actors over the long-term well being of their citizens?

Can any of us really afford to be that myopic?