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Burning Trash, High Cancer Rates And Shadows Of Italy's Mob

In northern Italy, the city of Pavia has higher-than-average cancer rates and widespread cases of illegal garbage burning. Are these two facts just a coincidence?

Bridge and river in Pavia, Italy.
Bridge and river in Pavia, Italy.
Andrea Ballone and Fabio Poletti

PAVIA – The latest pile of burning trash was discovered in Bornasco, a town north of the city of Pavia in Italy's northern region of Lombardy. The 15,000-square-meter mountain of abandoned washing machines, discarded cars, construction material, marble headstones, fiber-cement slabs, and electronics components was just one of many housed in the empty warehouses that litter the industrial wasteland on Pavia's outskirts.

"This is an area that is ideal for trash disposal because it has low population density over a large territory," says Angela Alberici, the director of the Pavia branch of Lombardy's Regional Agency for Environmental Protection (ARPA).

Pavia is also home to one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the country. For men, it's 10% higher than the average in Lombardy and 18% higher than the national rate, according to a 2015 report by the local government health agency.

Carlo Cerra of Pavia's health protection agency, says that a regional commission entitled "Environment and Health" has been established to probe the situation. "There are 200 different types of tumors and we have too few cases in Pavia to be able to establish a causal relationship, but we are worried about the environmental impact of the fires," Cerra says.

Pavia holds another unfortunate health record: the lowest life expectancy in the country. Residents of Pavia can expect to live until 81, two years less than the national average of 83. Pollution and poor environmental conditions are believed to be decisive factors in premature deaths.

Piazza della Vittoria, Pavia — Photo: Goldmund100

There are 21 different trash disposal businesses spread across the province of Pavia. A local survey published last October revealed 30 instances of environmental violations in just one month, and that data doesn't even account for the many illegal trash disposal sites like the one found aflame in Bornasco. While some are discovered and dismantled, at least five illegal trash sites have been set on fire since last May in the towns of Mortara, Parona, Stradella, and Corteolona.

Authorities in Pavia have opened a series of investigations into the fires but have yet to name any suspects. "Burning the trash is cheaper than disposing of it, so it makes sense as a business decision," says ARPA director Alberici.

Are these illegal fires and dumping sites linked to the powerful Camorra crime syndicate?

Tons of rubbish have been piling up outside Pavia ever since China, once the world's largest importers of waste, banned foreign trash imports last year. In January, a 2,000-square-meter warehouse filled with several tons of plastic waste was set aflame in Corteolona. Trucks began carrying loads of trash to the site last September, but the owner of the land claims to know nothing about the situation.

Investigators are also focusing on the so-called "land of fire" in the southern Italian region of Campania, where the burning of toxic-waste dumps outside of Naples is also causing health problems. Italian authorities have long linked these illegal fires and dumping sites to the powerful Camorra crime syndicate.

"We have to work harder on prevention because this is an area susceptible to organized crime," says Attilio Visconti, prefect of Pavia.

The local prefecture, a branch of the national government's Interior Ministry dedicated to public security, asked all of the province's 130 towns to submit a list of abandoned sites that could be used as clandestine trash dumps. The final list included 169 different sites that will now be investigated by the police and mapped with the help of drones.

"After every inspection of a site we must alert the public prosecutor's office, and we almost always find an irregularity," says Alberici. "The European directive that sets clear liabilities for the managers of rubbish dumps is widely disregarded."

Italy's parliament has launched a commission to investigate the fires, publishing a report in January entitled "The phenomenon of fires in rubbish disposal and treatment sites." One chapter is dedicated to a fire last September at the dump in Mortara, a routinely monitored site owned by a well-known trash disposal firm. The report found that three days after the fire, the concentration of toxic compounds in the air had risen far beyond acceptable health levels.

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