NAPLES (Reuters) - Piles of trash building up in Naples have filled the air with a putrid stench and spoiled the view for tourists, but the city's waste crisis may also be killing its people.
Standing at the barricades erected by local people to stop the authorities reopening an old landfill in the Pianura neighborhood, Salvatore Mele, whose son died of cancer, believes the illness was caused by pollution from trash.
"I lost him when he was 21," he said.
Besides fouling the port city's image and adding to risks to the Mediterranean from sewage and pollution, the waste is in some areas associated with higher death rates and certain types of cancer, studies have shown.
A government-appointed former police chief has been given army backup for a four-month quest to end a crisis which the Italian government declared a 'state of emergency' in 1994, but local people say years of illegal dumping is poisoning them.
"My mum got sick in 2004. We just had time to find what was wrong before she died, 15 days later, of a breast cancer. My father's sister died of the same thing a year later," said Pina Mangiapia, a 38-year-old housewife on the Pianura barricades.
Mangiapia blames the waste dump for three cancer deaths in the family, for the melanoma her husband had removed from his leg, and for her four-year-old son's chronic dermatitis.
Scientists say it can be difficult to assess the extent to which pollution is to blame for illnesses also provoked by genetic, socio-economic and lifestyle factors.
But there is proof that parts of Naples and its hinterland, in the shadow of the volcano Mount Vesuvius, have been steadily contaminated by decades of illegal waste dumping and burning.
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 are polluted by high levels of cancer-causing toxins believed to have come from waste.
Research released last year 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 any controls -- the mortality rate was 12 percent greater than the norm for women and 9 percent greater for men.
Fatal liver cancers were much more common -- up 29 percent for women and 19 percent for men in the most at-risk areas -- and there were huge increases in congenital malformations of the nervous and urinary systems.
While more than half the places studied in the area did not show abnormal health problems, the study implies a significant health risk for those living in the worst areas.
"First we need to make the dumps safe, close them off, properly gather the bio-gas and control the runoff," said Fabrizio Bianchi, who conducted the research. "We have to get out of this crisis."
Naples' failure to deal with its own household waste hit crisis point at the end of December when all refuse collection stopped as waste dumps had reached capacity, leaving people with no choice but to throw it onto the streets.
Political ineptitude, corruption and crime have conspired to stop the creation of a modern, safe disposal system. People despair of their politicians and are suspicious of government schemes -- like a new incinerator -- aimed at ending the crisis.
Like many in and around the 'triangle of death', those in Pianura say their council-run landfill was not properly managed and became a tipping site for hazardous waste.
But an even bigger source of pollution is the Camorra, the Naples mafia which runs a lucrative line in dumping and burning rubbish illegally.
More than domestic trash, the Camorra focuses on disposal of industrial waste which it brings to Campania from Italy's rich north -- one of a string of crimes against the environment earning the mafia an estimated 6 billion euros a year.
"The Camorra continues to control the cycle of industrial waste that comes from the north of Italy," said Michele Buonomo of Legambiente, a campaign group which closely monitors organized crime's assault on the environment.
"That's why practically every night in vast areas of Campania, waste arrives to be burned."
Editing by Sara Ledwith