The Toxic White Beaches of Rosignano Solvay

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The dazzling white sand of “Spiagge Bianche”, or “white beaches”, in the town of Rosignano Solvay, in southern Tuscany, has been luring tourists by the thousands for years. But this beautiful stretch of shoreline by the Tyrrhenian sea and its uncharacteristic Caribbean-look hides a dark secret that very few of the sunbathers and swimmers who flock to Spiagge Bianche every summer seem to be aware of. The stunningly white sand here is not natural. It’s chemical waste, and its source stands right next to the beach —an enormous complex of towering chimneys and cooling towers spewing smoke and steam into the air. This is the Solvay chemical plant.

Solvay is a Belgium company founded in 1864 by industrialist and politician Ernest Solvay. It came to Italy in 1912 and opened its first plant —and one of its largest production site— near the town of Rosignano Marittimo, located some 25 km from Livorno. Within a short time, with the Solvay factory driving the development, a new town was born with houses, streets, and places for recreation. This new town was named Rosignano Solvay.

The Solvay chemical plant in Rosignano Solvay manufacturers many basic chemicals such as sodium carbonate, bicarbonate, hydrogen peroxide, calcium chloride, and chlorine. Its main product is sodium carbonate, or soda ash, which is manufactured by bubbling carbon dioxide gas through a solution of brine (salt water) and ammonia to precipitate the compound. This process, known as the Solvay process, was invented by Ernest Solvay himself, and is now the leading industrial method used to produce sodium carbonate the world over.

The Solvay process leaves behind a mixture of calcium chloride and limestone as by-products, which the company has been dumping into the sea for decades. The most visible consequences of the factory’s action are the beautiful white, tropical paradise in front of the industrial complex. But the paradise is only an illusion. Mixed with the calcium chloride and limestone waste are many toxic chemicals such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and ammonia, which are incredibly harmful to humans and animals. According to a report published in 1999 by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Spiagge Bianche is among the 15 most polluted coastal sites on the Mediterranean Sea.

Between 2008 and 2010, the town recorded a mortality rate higher than the regional average for the same period, increasing by 2.2 per cent for men and 8.3 percent for women. In addition, the frequency of tumors and premature mortality (under age 65) are both above the regional average by several percentage points.

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