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North Italy 2012 - Polluted Wasteland

My husband and I just finished an extended stay in Europe, using Rick Steve's suggestions. One topic I think travelers should be alerted to is the quality of the air they will be breathing in the places they intend to visit. We started the Italian leg of our tour in Venice, where the air was clear and cool in Octobervery fine. Then we drove to Verona, Milan, and Genoa on the autostrada. We were horrified and disgusted at the vast quantity of hideously polluting factories everywherewith obviously no pollution controls of any kind. They were turning a former paradise into a form of hell on earth. Most communities at least limit their factories to an industrial park of some sort, but in North Italy, every residential neighborhood and every farmer's field seems to have sprouted a big polluter, which has completed destroyed the natural environment and the scenery. One really frightening thing is the way they are growing commercial fruits and vegetables directly right up against the walls of the worst polluting factories, obviously on the toxic sludge coming out of there. Verona's buildings in the tourist area are the only spot on the journey where we couldn't actually see the big polluters, but if you arrive by train or plane, you might not know why your eyes and lungs sting, and why you can't see much through thick smog.

Posted by
23577 posts

Maybe it was a bad day. I have driven all over Central and Northern Italy, especially Northern Italy, and have never noticed that problem. I've taken the train there too. There are certainly industries along the autostrada, many of them food related. Verona often has wind coming down from the alps which we noticed - maybe it usually carries away the air. Certainly never noticed any problem around Verona. Being in the hills around Vicenza and Padova we noticed the vineyards but not pollution. Same places, different experiences. Sorry you had such a bad time, and for so long.

Posted by
7 posts

Milan was by far the most polluted city I have ever seen in my life, and I have traveled in 35 countries and 45 states in America. The soot in Milan is blackening all the art and architecture. The soot and smog is so thick we could barely read the highway signs--and it was supposed to be a sunny day on the other side of the sooty smog cloud. By the time we got to Genoa, the worst of the pollution had cleared up. However, since we now know all the health hazards of sooty air pollution, such as cancer, heart disease, mental retardation in unborn foetuses, etc., I would strongly recommend anyone with any concerns for their health, especially women of reproductive age, avoid the entire region. Unfortunately, the locals obviously are in denial about the whole situation, probably because they really can't see their hands in front of their faces.

Posted by
38 posts

Hi Jennifer, I am sorry to hear that you did not enjoy your trip and that the quality was sub-par. My family and I have traveled to Milan and Verona several times and we have never encountered this. My husband and I will be back in northern Italy this summer and I hope that we do not have the same experience that you had. Wishing you all the best with your next travel experience. Paula

Posted by
7 posts

Now I feel like the little boy who called out that the emperor had no clothes. There is a fairy-tale feeling to almost everything in Europe, lol. I agree with the poster who said North Italy is the most polluted place in Europe, although no one told me about it. If we had known, we probably would have skipped it altogether. It was more than a "bad day". From the layers of black soot on all the art and architecture, pollution has obviously been a major public health problem there for a very long time. We had planned to spend a week there, but left early because we just couldn't take it any more. On a more positive note, we were very much impressed with Londonvery clean air, water, and buildings. They say they drink water from the Thames and eat fish caught there. So that proves you can have a big city, with good jobs, and be green! The Brits can rightfully be proud of their clean capital city.

Posted by
12040 posts

"I agree with the poster who said North Italy is the most polluted place in Europe" Go to some of the industrial areas of Russia, Moldova, Bulgaria and Poland. Far, far worse.

Posted by
7 posts

Tom, point well taken. North Italy is probably the most polluted place in WESTERN Europe, but I have never been to Eastern Europe, so I can't comment on that. However, I do think there should be travelers advisories about air pollution to any area, just like any other kind of travel reporting. BTW, we went through the Ruhr River Valley around Essen, Germany. I know that's a highly industrialized area, but I didn't notice pollution problems, so all the German emphasis on wind and solar power is apparently having a positive effect on the quality of life there.

Posted by
23577 posts

Like the Black Country in the UK Midlands, much of the heavy industry has left the Ruhr.

Posted by
12040 posts

Actually, Nordrhein-Westfalen is still, by far, the most heavily industrialized Bundesland in Germany, particularly the corridor along the lower Rhine. It's just not dominated by filthy coal and steel like it used to be (although these still exist). But there's still plenty of factories and power plants that emit their fair share of air pollution. On a clear day as you drive along A4 between Köln and Aachen or between Köln, Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Wuppertal, Dortmund, Essen and Mönchengladbach, you can see countless columns of exhaust rising into the sky all along the horizon... although to be fair, I think a lot that might be only steam... The heavily industrialized area where I live isn't exactly free of emissions either. I often go for walks with my dog in the evening along the ridgeline of the mountains that overlook the vast Rhine-Neckar valley. When the weather conditions are perfect, the view can be stunning. But more often then not, the westward view is partially tinted by smog.

Posted by
2766 posts

I took RS 14-day Village Italy tour this last September. It visits 7 (?) small town in Northern Italy. Living in Hawaii most of the year, I am use to occasional times of VOG (BAD air originating from a volcano on the Big Island).
This last week end was as bad as I can remember. Anyway, on the RS tour I noticed no pollutions like others have posted here. Maybe we just were in the right places at the right time.

Posted by
11431 posts

Jennifer, can't say I noticed air quality issues in Italy, but oh my, they are like the worst litter bugs ever, sides of their highways, I swear people just open their car doors and heave out their garbage bags.. Some places worst then others, but I recall this even from my very first trip to Italy over 25 yrs ago, and noticed it just as much 4 years ago, so they really do not seem to have the same concern for pollution and littering that I am used to .. its a shame.

Posted by
1737 posts

We spent 10 days in Northern Italy and didn't notice any pollution. What we did notice was exhaust from Vespa's, cars etc. that was terrible. I'm not use to walking in a city with cars right in my path. That really bothered me, but we didn't notice the air bad outside of that.

Posted by
11613 posts

I've been to Northern Italy for the past two summers and never noticed the level of pollution Jennifer describes, nor the amount of littering pat mentioned. Of course, rental car pollution is a significant problem anywhere...

Posted by
1994 posts

It's odd. I was in the same areas you mention at generally the same time. Experienced some fog, which was pleasant. Didn't notice pollution (other than cigarette smoke, which is expected), and when I saw factories, there was typically something wonderful in another direction... sometimes it's just where one puts the focus. I hope your next trip is better. Sometimes find myself wishing a place stayed "quaint" but then I try to remember that real people are living there, earning a living, shopping, etc. And they want the same conveniences that I enjoy daily.

Posted by
990 posts

I haven't personally noticed excessive pollution in Northern Italy, but given that I travel pretty frequently to southeast China, I may be impervious.

Posted by
2819 posts

Some comments of a former resident in the area: - the Po Valley is one of the pioneer ares of the industrial revolution so, yeah, it is not all fields and picturesque farms there - without a professional assessment in a lab, there is no way a layperson can tell whether something coming out of a factory is polluting or not. Especially a tourist with no knowledge of what activities are happening there. Most "fumes" you see these days out of factories in Europe (or in US for that matter) are merely water vapor, since industrial filters make most other exhausts impossible to see. - the Po Valley has a unique orographic configuration. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides that block much of air flow at ground level. That means scorching heat on summer (it's the most heat-wave prone area of Europe) and sometimes stagnant air with a foggy look on fall. That autumn fog is famous, but it is in no way exclusive or there. It is also prone to thermal air inversion. - if you have any concern about fruit and vegetables growing anywhere, what is thrown at them (chemicals) and how, and the quality of water in the soil are infinitely more relevant that what is in the air. Now, a personal counter-rant: Europe is NOT a big agricultural pre-industrial theme park where people are living like in a storytelling fairtale scenario! I'm sorry if you were disappointed, but unless you believe in magic, all that progress and money must come with some modern life, you know...

Posted by
12040 posts

Reminds me of the comments about Zurich, Basel and Zermatt not being "authentically Swiss"...

Posted by
177 posts

"if you have any concern about fruit and vegetables growing anywhere, what is thrown at them (chemicals) and how, and the quality of water in the soil are infinitely more relevant that what is in the air" The wastewater/sewer from the entire city of Milan was discharged directly in the Po without any treatment until 2005. There was a lawsuit from the European Environment Agency against the Italian government for failure to comply to directives. I am sure it is still extremely contaminated.

Posted by
7 posts

The air in Northern Italy certainly looked and smelled like pollution to me, and potential tourists should be advised about it. Also the way they build those factories everywhere is really ugly. Other countries confine the factories to industrial parks. If there are pollution controls, they are either very mild, or else not being enforced. In the US we now have websites with pollution ratings for the whole country. Does Europe have anything similar? Believe it or not, it is possible for an area to have green technology AND good jobs. I'm surprised the Italians, with their traditional appreciation of the visual arts, haven't figured out how to do that.

Posted by
177 posts

Jennifer, Absolutely and your observation of the air quality is correct. There are real time maps at the European Environment Agency website (search for Air quality maps of Europe) and northern Italy is unfortunately the worst area in western Europe for particulate matter. The zoning problems you reported are also a legacy from the so called il miracolo economico (1950-1963) which was a period of overheated economic growth in Italy. There was a massive migration of workers from southern Italy.

Posted by
118 posts

The north of Italy is one of the most industrialized areas of the country and of the continent, however, there is a control of pollution, we no longer live in the nineteenth century. Most of the pollution comes from cars in this area, as there is a very high density of cars in proportion to the population. If you want to visit the north of Italy, you avoid the big cities, and you choose the small and medium cities. The north of Italy has much to offer, not only smoking factories.

Posted by
7146 posts

You may want to avoid LA as well. Worst pollution I have ever seen.

Posted by
118 posts

Here then, we talked about Air quality maps of Europe, which refers to particulate pollution that is not due to the factories, but is due to cars and household. However, highly industrialized area and a bucolic and unspoiled landscape hardly coincide.

Posted by
177 posts

Particulate pollution is tied to heart disease and respiratory ailments.
They found 200 micrograms per cubic meter average in some parts of northern Italy. Los Angeles is not even close. The World Health Organization says a safe target for such particles is 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

Posted by
118 posts

In fact, it is because of this particulate pollution that in northern Italy, there are the Sundays of total block traffic in major cities, but there are doubts about the effectiveness of these measures. However, there are areas of northern Italy, such as the Langhe in Piedmont, dominated by agriculture and viticulture, where landscapes can rival the Tuscany.

Posted by
177 posts

Claudio, I love northern Italy. Two of my favorite places are lake Orta and your city Bergamo.
The pollution situation is also due to the geographic location and it is improving. I think however that it is fair to warn people that suffer from asthma to maybe stay away from Milan or Turin when the air quality is poor.

Posted by
118 posts

Thanks Mark, I'm glad you like Bergamo, I think it's a city that deserves a visit for for those who come to Milan. In winter, these large cities of northern Italy, because due to several factors, exceed the threshold level of particulate, then, as you say rightly, those who suffer from respiratory diseases should avoid these areas and go in Trentino or Monferrato. There are so many beautiful places in northern Italy, with fresh air and beautiful scenery.

Posted by
7 posts

Claudio, since you live in North Italy, which places specifically do you recommend and why? What would we see there, and what is the air quality?

Posted by
118 posts

I answer you with pleasure, I would definitely recommend the Langhe in Piedmont, the city of Alba and the surrounding villages like Barolo and Neive (one of the hundred most beautiful historic towns of Italy). An area of low indistrial intensity, but with extensive wine cultivations, in my opinion here produces the best wines of Italy and the food is fantastic, the Tuscany here has a potential adversary. In Lombardy, my region, worth a visit Bergamo, Mantova, Cremona, whose historic centers are a must see. The air quality is decent, considering that they are highly industrial areas.

Posted by
782 posts

The air quality in some of the northern cities here can be bad but it's mostly from automobiles which is why they have occasional bans on driving downtown in many cities, including here in Vicenza. As Claudio said, I'm not sure it really does anything besides make people think they are really doing something to help. It can be a shame too because once a month or so we have a completely clear day and the view of the Alps from is magnificent. It may be bad for some people but it is nowhere near as bad as places like Hong Kong or Manila. Now THAT is air pollution...