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Mafia's toxic dumping 'increases cancer rates'

Widespread dumping of toxic waste by Mafia clans in the southern region of Campania is causing a dramatic increase in birth defects and cancer, according to a group of US and Italian scientists.

Their warning comes a month after The Independent reported how crime groups in southern Italy were earning €20bn a year by illegally burying heavy metals and cancer-causing organic compounds, often in agricultural areas or on land used to build homes.

Dr Antonio Giordano of The Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research at Temple University, in Philadelphia, said his team's review of the evidence showed the link between toxic dumping and higher rates of cancers, serious birth defects and death, was now "difficult to deny". The survey suggests that in areas of Campania plagued by illegal dumping, birth defects of the urogenital and central nervous systems were more than 80 per cent higher than normal. The incidence of key cancers in contaminated areas, including those of the lung, liver and alimentary canal, appears to be around 12 per cent higher. The review will appear in the journal Cancer Biology & Therapy.

Fears for the health of residents in the afflicted area of Campania, known as "the triangle of death", which includes the towns of Nola, Acerra and Marigliano, have been growing for years. Another of the researchers, Dr Maddalena Barba, of the Human Health Foundation in Terni, said: "Three decades of illegal management of waste have made this region unique in the context of waste and disease."

Last month, a report by the environmental group Legambiente revealed that authorities last year seized a record two million tonnes of dangerous waste, mostly from Northern Italy, on its way for disposal, often in the one of Italy's four southernmost regions, Sicily, Calabria, Campania and Puglia, where the country's four main Mafia groups hold sway.

It said, however, that Campania, the region around Naples, was the area worst hit by Mafia-linked environmental damage. The local crime syndicate, the Camorra, is frequently blamed for exacerbating or even causing the regional rubbish collection crisis – by encouraging the closure of official incineration plants – to fan demand for its illegal dumping services.

Dr Giordano said he had come under fire from some politicians in the region. But he has vowed to continue exposing the health effects of toxic dumping and called on the authorities to prioritise the clean-up of affected areas.