Italian Photographer Captures Horrors of Asbestos Exposure

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An Italian photographer who has experienced firsthand the damage that asbestos has wrought in her native country has documented the horrors of asbestos to tell the stories of those who’ve been most affected by Italy’s rampant use of asbestos.

photographer documents horrors of asbestosCinzia Canneri spent the past two years following asbestos victims throughout the country. Many were touched by the toxin as a result of their work in factories and mills while others lived in public housing or other dwellings where asbestos was present in roofs, tiles, and other building products.

Others were secondhand exposure victims. Canneri talked to and photographed dozens of these individuals, many of whom lost multiple members of their family due to asbestos inhalation.

Canneri would locate her subjects and then ask permission to live with them for a few days, explains a blog in the New York Times. Most were eager to tell their story. “Taking pictures was the last thing,” said the photographer, who first spent time getting to know these victims and listening to their often-long stories of unnecessary exposure.

The result is a series of very intimate, stark, black and white photographs that tug at the heartstrings and elicit plenty of empathy for the victims.

Though Italy joined many of the other countries in the European Union in banning asbestos in the late 20th century, the damage was already done, Canneri and her subjects note.

For most, the ban was too little, too late.

“You live with death in this city,” said Pietro Condello, who has asbestosis and has lost his wife to asbestos disease. Condello lived and worked in the town of Casale Monferrato, a small but beautiful town in Italy’s Piedmont Region.

Many of the companies there specialize in refrigeration and local workers spent their days building refrigerated vehicles or working in the air conditioning industry, encountering asbestos on a daily basis.

Another company that exposed hundreds of workers to asbestos was Eternit, where fiber cement was produced. They also had a plant in Casale Monferrato.

Today, the Eternit factory there has been buried and a playground has been built atop it.

Few residents let their children play there. Charges against Eternit executives, who had been found guilty of negligence in 2012, were dropped in 2014 because an Italian court deemed that too many years had passed between exposure and the time that legal action was taken against the company.

It was a huge blow to many.

Canneri, in her travels, captured not only the people touched by asbestos but also the land scarred by the toxic mineral. She photographed asbestos-contaminated soil in Pisa, asbestos pipes in Grosseto, and the remains of another Eternit factory in Alessandria.

Though Canneri’s project is complete, she notes that asbestos victims in Italy continue to fight, despite the fact that many have lost husbands, wives, sons, daughters, parents, and many others to asbestos exposure.

As with victims in the U.S., they continue to look for new and better ways to treat mesothelioma cancer and other diseases caused by exposure and they pray that the deaths will end soon. Experts say that’s not likely, however. They expect cases of the disease to peak sometime in the next five years.