Eco-Mafia: Environmental Crimes and Toxicity in Italy


By Frank Rando

Italy continues to grapple with the toxic legacy of illegal waste management practices by notorious criminal groups, with devastating consequences for people and the environment. Frank Rando investigates.

The Roman Empire once called the plains of the region of Campania in modern-day Italy “Campagna Felix”, or “happy countryside”, due to its beautiful peacefulness. The Romans noted that the land was very fertile due to its lush fields of flowers and other vegetation. On the Tyrrhenian Sea between the Garigliano River and the Gulf of Policastro, Campania includes the provinces of Naples and Caserta in southern Italy. 

It has been estimated that Italy produces 135 million tons of hazardous waste annually, making it one of the top generators of hazardous waste in the EU. Since the 1980s, these once pristine Campania plains have been subjected to the ravages of illegal waste dumping consisting of tons of urban refuse, demolitions waste (including asbestos and lead-based painted construction debris), and a myriad of toxic, flammable, and reactive chemicals and materials used in commerce and industry.

As is the case with other pressing environmental issues, businesses and industrial concerns have often contracted dubious waste management entities to dispose of waste illegally, circumventing laws and regulations and disposing of the effluvia of their operations at low cost.

The reasons behind illegal dumping schemes and operations are multifactorial, however they are primarily motivated by profit and cost calculations. At times, the decision to take advantage of the illegal purveyors has also been triggered by businesses that generate conventional and hazardous waste facing financial hardship.

Perfect Storm for Environmental Injustice

Southern Italy also happens to be a socioeconomically deprived area, and over the years it has been rife with poverty, inadequate socioeconomic infrastructure, poor access to preventative healthcare and treatment, and overtaken by prolific criminal activity. The influence and control of the regional Mafia, such as the Camorra, has reached and embroiled unscrupulous business owners and employees, corrupt political figures, and even public safety officials. All of these factors have created the perfect storm for environmental injustice.

Businesses and industry have frequently chosen and continue to disregard regulatory compliance with mandates and laws, and to turn a blind eye to the consequences of illegal waste dumping. Through extortion, fear of reprisals, or acts of bribery, the Camorra’s grip on illegal waste management has prevailed throughout the region.

For example, the industrial complexes of the northern regions have formed partnerships with transnational criminal organizations, but often have been responsible for the transport and illegal deposition of truckloads of hazardous waste onto Italian soil. One such organized crime entity is the Camorra, which for decades has had a stronghold on the population and the economic infrastructure of the Campania region.

For some factions within organized crime groups such as the Camorra and the Sicilian Mafia, the profits from illegal waste dumping have easily exceeded the returns of their illicit drug trade. It has been estimated that in 2013 alone, organized crime syndicates across Italy, including the Camorra, earned some €16.3 billion from illegal waste dumping and trafficking. Cities like Naples have long had issues with the proper management of domestic waste, and the Camorra and other criminal associates recognized waste management as a very lucrative enterprise as far back as the 1970s and 1980s.

Criminal organizations such as the Camorra have adapted an even more lucrative aspect of “waste management” by illegally hauling and depositing industrial waste in barrels, canisters, or other containers, and even by blending extremely toxic industrial chemicals and materials with domestic garbage.

Toxic Sewage Sludge and Illegal Landfills

Illegal waste trafficking has also resulted in the deposition of toxic sewage sludge containing infectious microbial agents, heavy metals, and chemicals. In 2004 and 2005, regional dumps were discovered containing radioactive waste.

Over the years, Italian environmental crime investigators and uniformed carabinieri have encountered a myriad of illegal landfills ranging from eight to 20 meters in depth packed with toxic, flammable, corrosive, and reactive chemical waste containers. This is on top of mixed urban construction and demolition waste contaminated with asbestos.

Multiple hectares of land, either on or in proximity to agricultural areas, have been severely contaminated as leachate has found its way into aquifers and rivers before being absorbed by food crops and distributed throughout the food chain. 70% of the region’s produce is grown and cultivated in the community of Acerra, and here dioxins and other compounds have been detected in farm animals and vegetation. Farmers in the region have reported congenital malformations in lambs and the death of cows.

Both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems have been grossly contaminated by complex mixtures, which include several petrochemical substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents, pesticides, inorganic corrosives, cyanides, and heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead. In many instances, buried hazardous waste has led to dangerous chemical reactions and underground fires, releasing highly toxic gases and fumes from their subterranean hiding places.

To make space for additional tonnages of conventional and hazardous waste, mountains of domestic, conventional, and industrial waste are regularly and frequently set on fire creating highly toxic smoke plumes and polluting the air that residents breathe. 

Precipitation also captures toxic airborne particulates and chemicals, forming toxic leachate that percolates through the soft, porous soil, and enters the aquifer system. Furthermore, toxic rain and airborne particulates deposit into aquatic systems and sediment, which then leads to the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxicants in aquatic and marine ecosystems.

Health Consequences

This toxic air exacerbates pre-existing respiratory diseases, induces respiratory system cancers, and results in the systemic absorption of multiple toxicants, including the highly toxic by-products, dioxins and furans. 

Dioxins such as TCDD, which is the by-product of the Vietnam War-era herbicide “Agent Orange”, are known for their profound toxicity and their ability for lipid solubility and sequestration in animal and human adipose tissues. Dioxin is also mutagenic, teratogenic (induces developmental and congenital abnormalities), highly carcinogenic, and an endocrine disrupter. In addition, other hazardous wastes can act synergistically or individually to express serious environmental and human health effects.

For example, heavy metals can have adverse neurological, renal, integumentary, respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, and immunological system effects. Solvents such as benzene and its vapors – which is also a component of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels – can induce leukemia, bone marrow failure, and neurological effects.

A fire at an illegal dump in the city of Scafati, near Naples, October 2019, © Angelo Ferrillo

Illegal waste disposal practices have also been discovered to have epidemiological correlations to disease causation in the Campania region. The toxicological significance of exposures depends on the time and length of exposure, the concentration of the substance, physiological and environmental routes of exposure, meteorological conditions, and biogeochemical cycles.

Physiological routes of exposure include inhalational, ingestion, injection, or dermal. The most prevalent route of exposure to environmental contaminants is inhalational. Environmental exposure pathways include atmospheric, aquatic, soil, sediment, vegetation, and dietary.

Various cancers have been expressed among the residents of the Campania region, which has the highest cancer rate among all the regions and provinces of Italy. Developing fetuses, newborn infants, children and adults with co-morbidities, and dysfunctional immune systems are more susceptible to toxic exposures, and many toxic substances found in contaminated environments can transcend both the blood-brain and placental barriers.

Cancer clusters and increased cancer mortality involving children and some adults have been documented in those living in the vicinity of the contaminated landfills and toxic fires that are ubiquitous in the region.

Legislation, Protests, and Human Rights Violations

While southern Italy has certainly suffered massive environmental impacts, deleterious health effects, and social upheaval from egregious illegal waste dumping, the Ministry of the Environment has enforced legislation allowing environmental remediation operations. 

Local grass roots citizen environmental groups have organized protests and demanded justice, and the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Italy is responsible for the violation of citizens’ human rights. The preliminary verdict has found that Italy failed to collect, treat, and properly dispose of waste in the Campania region.

A protestor taking part in a demonstration against illegal waste dumping in Naples in 2013. The banner reads: “the sins of fathers fall on children”, ©

The international trafficking of conventional and hazardous waste to the Ivory Coast, China, and other nations from Italy and other Western countries, including the U.S., has been happening for decades and still continues to this day. 

The ecological and human impacts from these international environmental disaster zones will continue to affect natural habitats and public health and safety for years to come. In this context, it is tragic that “another persons’ trash is another person’s treasure”.

Francesco (Frank) Rando currently serves as an allied health programs educator, lead instructor, healthcare emergency preparedness, medical readiness, public health preparedness and tactical, operational, disaster medicine and homeland security subject matter expert, educator, instructor, and curriculum designer. He has served in instructional, guest speaker, and consultative roles for DHS-FEMA, various components of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, Department of Defense, industry, academia, health, safety and regulatory entities, emergency services organizations, and healthcare.

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