Higher cancer rates in Italy’s Land of Fires

Toxic fumes and fine particulate matter polluting the air from decades of illegal waste dumping in the surroundings of Naples are leading to higher-than-normal death and cancer rates, most especially in children. That it took the authorities so long to confirm this data is due mostly to the power of the local Camorra mafia, writes Wolf H. Wagner in Florence.

Italian officials have finally confirmed that illegal toxic waste dumps in Naples and its surroundings is leading to higher than average death and cancer rates among children. (Image credit: Dain Sandoval, flickr)

Italian officials have finally confirmed that illegal toxic waste dumps in Naples and its surroundings is leading to higher than average death and cancer rates among children. (Image credit: Dain Sandoval, flickr)

The news was released in silence and only picked up by a few Italian media: on the website of the Tuscan environmental authorities Arpat was the news that the National Institute of Health (ISS) has confirmed that incidents of death and cancer in the region in and around the so-called Terre dei Fuochi – the Land of Fires – have increased dramatically.

The reason: toxic waste and illegal dumping in the area between Naples and Caserta, which was given its infamous name because of the fires burning there day and night for years.

Fine particulate matter, dioxins and other toxic fumes are poisoning the air. Dangerous contaminants are leaching into the groundwater, harming the region’s drinking water.

Children at particular risk

A first report by the national epidemiological study Sentiri was published back in 2014 with cautionary data from the region around Naples, which has only now been officially confirmed.

It confirmed that the death rate in the provinces of Caserta and Naples were 13 per cent higher than in other areas. The risk of cancer in children under the age of 14 was especially high: 68 per cent in the province of Caserta, 51 per cent in Naples and its surroundings.

The pollutants emitted have been shown to cause brain tumours, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, liver cancer, thyroid cancer and blood diseases such as leukaemia.

Babies less than one year old are at significant risk, admits the updated report. Pregnant women and their foetuses are also at dramatically increased risk.

Politicians downplay the issue

Politicians were eager to downplay the situation two years ago. The ministry of agriculture said that of the 1,076 square kilometres studied, “only 21.5 square kilometres were seriously at risk, of which only 9.2 are used for agriculture.”

In other words, only 2 per cent of the Land of Fires is actually at risk, in the opinion of the minister of agriculture. And his colleague in the ministry of health, Beatrice Lorenzin (New Center Right) said “it’s not possible to know if the cancer rates stem from environmental pollution or other causes, such as poor lifestyle.”

These statements have now been refuted in the updated study. But the fact that the authorities must have already been aware of a problem in 2014 is seen in a law enacted back then, called Legge 6/2014, which called for remediation of the Land of Fires as well as extensive material and medical support, including medications, for those affected.

But it was only the massive protests by parents, environmental organisations and medical practitioners that put the matter into motion, culminating in the recent official admissions.

Camorra exerts pressure

A judicial follow-up is now needed as most of the landfills are controlled and managed by the local mafia, the Camorra. Toxic waste is transported to the Land of Fires not only from all parts of Italy, but even from beyond the Alps.

Local politicians as well as employees of the municipal health authorities were bought, bribed or used by the mafia. Investigations by anti-mafia units led to arrests and even the dissolution of entire municipal councils. The public prosecutor’s office has initiated investigations against the environmental agency in Campania – even their website is currently not accessible.

For the dead and terminally ill children in Naples and its surroundings, all of the current measures have come far too late. But they might offer a glimmer of hope for future generations.


Image credit: Dain Sandoval, flickr/Creative Commons

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