Children are the most vulnerable victims of Italy’s toxic waste coverup

Valeria Marchetti – WNN Features

Fruit market in Campania region
This fruit market in the Campania region of Italy may have fruit that was grown near water or land that has been tainted by toxic waste dumping. This fact has numerous citizens in the region nervous to eat some varieties of the locally grown food. Image: Stephani Lafayette

(WNN) Rome, ITALY, WESTERN EUROPE: “When you put your eyes on this report, despite all the louder sounds around you, what you can hear is, above all, silence. All the words you can read in this dossier is like a punch in your stomach. Someone will say that in these pages we give a wrong image of Italy. But in reality these [numbers] are the right figures that show the emergency – in Campania ‘centimeters after centimeters, indignation after indignation’.”

Roberto Saviano wrote those words as a preface to a report released known as: ‘Eco-mafia 2010’.

Saviano’s warning echoes the ongoing environmental disaster of the western southern region of Italy known as the Campania, a region that locals now call ‘The Land of Poison’.

This isn’t a poison that can be erased quickly. Seven women have recently stood up to publicly document the loss of their children after living next to illegal toxic dumping in their ‘own backyards’ for years.

Campania has been considered by tourists to be one of the most beautiful regions in the world that includes the famous Amalfi Coast, as well as 42 small villages that spread out between the areas surrounding Naples in the north to the Italian city of Caserta in the south.

“Children are the future,” says 36-year-old mother Anna who lost her infant son Ricardo from a cancerous tumor in Campania before he reached the age of 2-years-old. Now Anna is part of a human rights campaign in Italy that wants to bring the pain of losing a child from cancer home to everyone it touches.

“Most of us [too] have other children. Maybe for us [it] might be too late, but we desperately want to save the next generation who will live in the area,” added Anna.

Anna’s voice is only one of many mothers who have come together in hospitals, clinics and meeting rooms as they shared the prognosis and medical condition of their children. Standing up for Anna and many other mothers is Anna’s family priest.

Father Maurizio Patriciello

Since the middle of the 1990s as a staunch human rights advocate, environmental activist and local parish priest for the town of Aversa, Father Maurizio Patriciello has written numerous stories about the crisis in environmental danger in Campania. The Father is also a paramedic and a current contributing writer for Avvenire, the daily newspaper affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church in the region.

“I come from Frattamaggiore – a little village absorbed by the ‘Land of Poison’,” said Father Patriciello during a personal interview with WNN. “I’ve been the priest of Aversa since 1989. According to my experience many people around this area have been exposed to toxic pollutants for decades. Pollutants in the air, water and in [food] produce from the area that are well above [safety] regulation levels. That is the main reason why people died,” outlined Father Patriciello.

Anna, mother of deceased infant child Riccardo
With the words “Padre Santo Aiutaci (Holy Father Help Us)!” above her head in a postcard 36-year-old Anna, mother of infant son Riccardo who died of aggressive cancer before he reached the age of 2, holds a picture of her son as she stands alone in Ricardo’s former bedroom. Image: Mauro Pagnano

Exposing legal and illegal dumping inside Italy isn’t anything new. It’s been going on for decades as government leadership juggles the hard hand of the Mafia through Italy’s politics. But today public knowledge of toxic waste dumping in Italy has grown exponentially.

“The environmental waste problem in southern Italy is now reaching epic proportions and the problem has been linked to increasing rates of cancer,” said one of the world’s most respected medical publishers The Lancet as far back as 2004. Their report by science and health researchers Kathryn Senior and Alfredo Mazza called, “Italian ‘Triangle of death’ linked to waste crisis,” made the issues of contamination from toxic waste inside Italy an obvious place that needed much more attention.

“If in these zones there are high mortality rates it is because people have the wrong lifestyles,” said Italy Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin in a public statement she made to the press last summer.

“How it is possible that in the 42 districts thousands of kids [have] died of cancers? Have they already developed bad habits?” Father Patriciello asked ironically after Mrs. Lorenzin’s quote to the press was released. Birth defects in the region have also been on the rise.

The Camorra, the name for the Italian crime syndicate that has been part of the Campania region since the 18th century, is suspected of securing lucrative contracts to dispose of waste and then dumping much of it illegally, said the BBC in a recent November 16, 2013 news story. Over 20 years ago doctors were beginning to notice a rise in cancer cases in and around Naples.

“Since then, the number of tumors found in women has risen by 40%, and those in men by 47%,” outlined the BBC.

When Father Patriciello talked with photographer Mauro Pagnano about an idea to photograph some of the mothers who had lost their children Pagnano jumped to take photographs for the campaign. Pagnano had each mother sit in the bedroom of their now deceased child as they held a framed picture of child they knew and loved. The photos were then made into individual postcards with slogans for the campaign appealing to Italy’s leadership written in graphic text.

Secrets Revealed

“Stop It Now” (Io Non Ci Sto) is the slogan for activists who are working to raise public awareness. A recent story by Il Mattino, a popular regional newspaper, outlines Italy’s government decision to release new legal documents that now reveal past knowledge of a significant increase of cancer-related deaths based on irrefutable data coming in from the region.

Speaking before the legislature during the October 2013 Parliamentary session, Senator Mr. Lucio Romano and Senator Mr. Maurizio Roman spoke about Italy’s environmental crisis. Referencing the ‘Land of Fires’ (Terra dei Fuochi), another term used for ‘The Land of Poisons’, the men talked about the region’s history in the dumping of hazardous waste. They also talked about open pit fires that burned waste, most at night, throughout the region.

Global media coverage in 2008 depicting huge mountains of rubbish in the streets of Naples brought scandals to the region. Before this rising numbers of children’s deaths began to be linked by science almost 10 years ago. At the time this connection to the experts was largely ignored by Italy’s government.

Child in street protest Campania, Italy
A child is held high above the crowd during one of nighttime street protests in Campania, Italy. During the protests demands were made of Italy’s leadership to act swiftly to stop the decades of toxic waste dumping in the region. Experts say that children are some of the most susceptible victims of toxic chemicals and heavy metal compounds that can be found in unclean waste dumping. Image: Mauro Pagnano

Research now shows that unfiltered and unclean waste can contain a number of dangerous chemicals and metal compounds that can compromise the health of human beings. These substances can also cause death in excess. The dangerous metals and compounds include asbestos, lead, arsenic, nickel, cadmium, chromium, beryllium compounds, vinyl chloride, dioxins and dioxin-like compounds and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons.

After massive illegal dumping by the Mafia in the regions surrounding Naples in the 1980s and 1990s, the now imprisoned Camorra Mafia Chief Francesco Schiavone described the crime syndicate’s operations in detail in a secret 1997 testimony now just released by Italy’s government to the public for the first time. These acts by the Camorra were done with full knowledge of the danger and toxicity the dumping would bring to the region, especially the dangers of radioactive waste dumping.

“The inhabitants are all at risk of dying from cancer within twenty years,” said Schiavone in his secret testimony. “In towns like Casapesenna, Casal di Principe, Castel Volturno, and so on, they have, perhaps, twenty years to live. In fact I don’t think anyone will survive,” continued Schiavone.

Death is not an easy thing to justify for any reason, especially for a Mafia chief who is living under protected anonymity as he continues to live but regrets his past.

“When a mother is next to her child who is about to die, agony overcomes her mind” shared Imma a 33-year-old Campania mother who lost her infant daughter Mesia at the age of 3. Mesia died only months after a doctor diagnosed that the child had a deadly and aggressive form of cancer.

“In the corridors of the hospital where Mesia was hospitalized I met other moms taking care of children affected by tumors,” continued Imma. “We socialized and after long hours chatting [and] we discovered a lot of similarities. We come from the same area and our children were affected by almost the same type of tumors,” Imma outlined.

A Mother’s Wish

Despite the overwhelming evidence the issue of toxic dumping has a long way to go to find a sustainable solution. Imma and Anna, like other mothers who volunteered for photographer Pagnano for the postcard campaign, were able to turn their mourning and anger into a social justice battle. One of their strongest achievements was to get people from diverse backgrounds living throughout Campania to join in.

When Father Patriciello, Mauro Pagnano, the mothers and citizen activists joined protests on streets from the village of Orta di Atella to the village of Caivano near Caserta the protesters walked together hand-in-hand under the slogan ‘March For Life’ (Marcia per la Vita).

The protests brought 2,000 people to the streets throughout Campania in October 2013.

33-year-old Imma, the mother of a daughter named Mesia who died of a tumorous cancer by the age of 3, sits on her dead daughter’s bed as she holds up a picture of Mesia. The postcard campaign slogan above her head reads: “Presidente i nostri figli muoiono (Mr. President our children are dying”). This postcard message was directed to Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano. Image: Mauro Pagnano

Yelling slogans as they demanded Italy’s local and national authorities give children the human rights to live, the protesters brought the issues of healthy food, clean water and freedom from poisonous gases to the face of Italy’s public conscience.

“It is so unfair when a mother has to attend the funeral of her own child. In fact it is a drama, especially when mums realize that what killed their babies was the air they breathed, the water they drank and the food they ate,” said Father Patriciello.

More than anything the purpose of the postcards project has been to draw public opinion and attention to the problem of toxic waste exposure, outlined Father Patriciello who shared how much his presence and witness at the funerals of children now hurts him more and more these days.

“We disposed of 70 or 80 trucks from the north, millions and millions of tons,” said former Camorra Mafia chief Schiavone during his 1997 testimony. “To clean it up would cost the entire Italian budget for a year I think,” continued Schiavone.

According to ARPA, an Italy-based environmental monitoring agency, Campania now has 5,200 critical environmentally polluted sites. This includes both legal and illegal waste dumping activities in the Campania region. Waste has been disposed of in numerous ways including dumping, burying, burning and sending out to sea.

“For what has happened to me and to so many other people living between Naples and Caserta, I can not only blame [Italy’s Mafia the] Camorra, but also the lack of control by Italian authorities regarding toxic dumping in our zones,” outlined Anna who’s infant son Ricardo is now gone.

“Seriously, we don’t need pity or former speeches made by Italian authorities. What we ask of them is to take action and give to children the basic right to live in a healthy place,” Imma shared who’s daughter . “In the March of life [protests] there were so many people. In addition to solidarity we felt people’s desire to release ‘our land’ from [the] poisons. And [to] get the right to live without fearing the dark shadow of mortal disease,” added Imma.

Today the data cannot be denied. Cancers found in the region include cancer of the liver, kidney, stomach, trachea, bladder, lung and pleura. 

After protests and distribution of thousands of postcards the campaign has now reached an important level. A recent success in the campaign has just brought news from the Vatican.

After receiving 150,000 postcards from parishioners Pope Francis has personally responded to the efforts of the campaign. On November 18, 2013 the Pontiff called Roman Catholic Sister Teresa, a nun who is based in Casal di Principe in a small village near Caserta, to personally express his solidarity with the people living in the areas most affected by the ecological disaster, said Rete News an online magazine in Naples.

‘God will forgive whoever made our land ‘The Land of Poisons’, but I believe history will condemn them,” continued Father Maurizio Patriciello.

“My great desire is to see polluted landfills changing into parks where children can play,” Anna shared. “All people living in the land of poison can make this miracle but we need to stay united,” she added.


In an area where locals whisper to each other about ongoing corruption, environmental activists call the ongoing toxic waste dumping and leading to mismanagement in the Campania region of Italy part of specific operations controlled predominately by what is termed locally as the “Eco-Mafia.” Without transparency or accountability the crisis in toxic waste in Italy has reached emergency dimensions continues to function without proper government oversight or action. Unprotected from the rising tide of toxins in the soil, air and water unexplained deaths in the region have risen as protest against the corruption also rises. But where is Italy’s government? And why is nothing being done to stop the tide of toxic garbage that plagues those who live in the region? Women and children are especially vulnerable to the dangers as reproductive and childhood cancers cost some of them their lives. This video is a 2009 video production by VICE media Italy.


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Freelance Italy correspondent Valeria Marchetti is a digital and broadcast journalist who studied her trade in London and has worked for numerous news publications including the local Rome-based newspaper Nero Se Bianco. Marchetti has also worked as a radio reporter for Radio Vaticana at the Vatican in addition to her work as a freelance video journalist. Dedicated to investigative reporting on stories that focus on social justice and women Marchetti is currently based in Rome.

Some additional researched materials for this story have also been provided by the editors at WNN – Women News Network.


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