TERZIGNO, Italy (Reuters) - Clutching her sickly 1-1/2-year-old son, Anna Langella says the family doctor had this simple prescription for her: move somewhere else.
Langella says her toddler often vomits and she blames this on the foul smell and toxic waste piling up in a rubbish dump near her house in Terzigno, on the outskirts of Naples where the streets are strewn with mounds of garbage.
“We have to keep the children inside, with the doors and windows shut, but even then it’s not enough,” she told Reuters. “It’s terrible. The state has abandoned us.”
The dump was opened last year as a stop-gap solution for rubbish from Italy’s third largest city, where organised crime, inefficiency and political opportunism have turned waste disposal into a chronic emergency.
It is already full and plans to open a new one have provoked protests.
After days of clashes between police and residents and newspaper headlines dominated by pictures of festering rubbish, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promised on Friday to spend 14 million euros (12.5 billion pounds) to upgrade the Terzigno dump and said there was no threat to public health from the site.
Residents of the town on the fringes of a national park at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano overlooking the Bay of Naples, are worried and sceptical.
“The stench is bothering us but that’s the lesser evil. The most important thing is that we are dying here, there is leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma, the most horrible diseases,” said teacher Anna De Vincenzo.
Medical experts say it can be difficult to assess the extent to which pollution is to blame for illnesses that are also caused by genetic, socio-economic and lifestyle factors.
There is evidence that parts of Naples and its bleak hinterland have been steadily contaminated by decades of illegal waste dumping and burning.
The medical journal Lancet Oncology in 2004 dubbed part of the Campania region, of which Naples is the capital, “the triangle of death” because the air, soil and water were polluted by high levels of cancer-causing toxins believed to have come from the waste.
Research in 2007 by Italy’s National Research Council found that, among people living closest to the least regulated waste disposal sites, where trash is dumped in fields or burnt without controls, the mortality rate was between 9 and 12 percent higher than the norm.
Fatal liver cancers were also more common in the highest risk areas, according to the study, although it said more than half the places studied in the region did not show abnormal health problems.
A state of emergency over Naples’ garbage was first declared in 1994 and successive governments appointed a series of “trash tsars” to tackle the problem.
Political ineptitude, corruption and the influence of the Camorra — the Naples version of the Sicilian mafia — have prevented the creation of a modern, safe waste disposal system.
Separate waste collection for recycling in Naples accounts for just 15 percent of the total, one of the lowest rates in Italy. People despair of politicians and do not trust government schemes aimed at ending the crisis.
Like many in the region, people in Terzigno say their landfill is not managed properly and has become a dumping ground for hazardous waste, some of it from other parts of Italy.
“We see the garbage trucks coming in at night and dumping everything in the landfill, toxic waste, hospital waste,” said Michele Amoruso, a 41-year-old tax lawyer.
Central to the problem is also the role of the Camorra, which makes a fortune from the illegal disposal and burning of industrial waste.
“The Camorra is a crucial player in the whole cycle of industrial waste, particularly in the transport of toxic waste from the north of Italy,” said Pasquale Raia of the environmentalist group Legambiente.
Additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Fabio Severo; editing by Andrew Dobbie