• July 18, 2014

Q&A: Greg Kahn on Exposing Toxic Threats in Italy

Have you ever tracked how much waste you create during a week, or even a month? Every time I clean my house or walk down a neighborhood street I marvel at the sheer amount of waste we create. But where does it all go? And what happens when large companies, ones that use tons of toxic chemicals, are not forced to dispose of waste in safe, healthy ways? In Campania, Italy, the toxic waste situation has become so dire that children and adults alike are developing rare cancers. Photographer Greg Kahn set out to document this issue in a country that is simultaneously beautiful and torn apart by organized crime and governmental failure. I corresponded with Kahn over email and asked him about his project which he calls “The Sleep of Reason,” after a famous Goya etching called “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.”

Picture of woman in butcher shop
A woman sells pig intestines along the side of the street in Melito, one of the towns seeing a spike in cancer rates linked to toxic dumping.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: How did you first find out about the waste dumping problem in Italy?

GREG KAHN: I first heard about toxic waste dumping in southern Italy from a good friend who is working in Naples. As we talked about environmental issues, he relayed what he had seen and heard about toxic waste dumping north of where he lived and I began researching. I read as much as I could about the issue, and then contacted a gentleman named Antonio Giordano, who heads a cancer research center in southern Italy, and teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He relayed first-hand accounts of witnessing dozens of children in hospitals with rare brain cancers—the kind that only 1 in 100,000 get. But seven children in a town of 40,000 developed the same rare cancer. This town is located in an area next to a large, illegal toxic waste dump that was recently unearthed.

Picture of teenager with lymphoma
Anna Pouti, 18, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in July 2011, on her birthday.

JANNA: What compelled you to work on this story?

GREG: Before embarking on this project, I imagined Italy as fairly idyllic—rolling hills, sun-covered vineyards, and fertile farmland. This story seemed to fall through the cracks of international public attention. It was covered initially in foreign media when Carmine Schiavone, a member of a Mafia family in the Campania region, went to authorities and told them about “millions of tons” of toxic waste buried deep in the earth in what once was some of the most fertile farmland in Italy. I wanted to see how this legacy of poisoning the ground was impacting the communities. There is a psychological torment every time families cook dinner, take a shower, or venture outside and breathe. Even the air is contaminated. Instead of focusing on the Mafia, I wanted to focus on the culture, and examine how a once beautiful part of the world had become something of a modern wasteland.

Picture of piles of trash near orchard
Industrial waste lies on the outskirts of farmland in the Campania region of Italy. Toxic by-products without proper disposal seep into the soil causing unknown damage.

JANNA: Why focus on Italy? Isn’t toxic waste dumping an issue in other countries?

GREG: What’s been shocking to me is this problem isn’t necessarily worse than in other parts of the world, but it’s as bad as developing nations that don’t have the same resources as Italy. In the Campania region, piles of garbage line the highways, farmland, and playgrounds. Heaps of waste and industrial by-products sit under overpasses, and are torched in large fires that billow poisonous black smoke. It’s not uncommon to see mounds of asbestos lying along the highway and appliances—stripped of their copper and recyclables—scattered about the countryside. Suddenly, this wasn’t just a story of the Mafia inflicting catastrophic damage to a region, but a systemic cultural issue of waste disposal. Piles of waste from a variety of sources, including residents and local businesses, are all covered with thin layers of soil. They look like tumors on the land.

Picture of carnival ride
An empty carnival ride at the Villaggio Coppola public beach. The water at the beach is next to where the Regi Lagni canal system dumps the runoff from the buried toxic waste into the sea.

JANNA: Is the waste issue widespread, or is it concentrated in pockets? What do the areas surrounding Campania look like?

GREG: There are two separate views of the issue. One is cosmetic. It’s the piles of trash visible from the road, or the columns of black smoke that can be seen for miles, drifting over communities every day during the warm months. But the more serious consequences come from what isn’t experienced by sight or smell. The Mafia concealed their crimes, burying the waste so far below the ground that it’s mixing with the water table. And because the Mafia didn’t keep any records of illegally burying the industrial waste, the hospital waste, and everything in between, the whole area is affected. No one knows which crops have been growing on top of dump sites, or which ones have been irrigated with contaminated water. Families I talked to had their own theories about what was causing their illnesses. Some blamed the food, while others pointed at the water or air. No one had any answers, and it adds to the public’s frustration not only with the Mafia, but with the government as well.

Picture of teenagers under shrub
Teenagers watch the annual protest to mark the murder of Giuseppe Diana, a local priest that instructed his parishioners to shun the Mafia, in Casal di Principe, a stronghold of the region’s Mafia, the Camorra.

JANNA: What do you hopes do you have for this project, moving forward?

GREG: In the short term, I want this project to lead to action in the region. There is plenty that can be done to reverse the current situation. And although there is no magic potion to cleanse the land, healing can start by ending the continuous dumping of toxic materials. But even the cleanup is jeopardized. Some Italian officials worry that the Mafia now own all the companies tasked with cleaning dump sites, generating profit for the Mafia by fixing a problem they caused. And no one would be surprised if the waste was then simply moved to another location instead of being disposed of properly.

Picture of fennel discarded in soil
Harvested scraps of fennel lie on the soil of a farm less than a mile from an industrial incinerator in Acerra. The controversial incinerator is blamed for burning toxic materials mixed in with regular garbage and poisoning the crops on the farms surrounding it.

In the long term, I hope this project is used to talk about the problems concerning waste disposal worldwide. As the world’s population and the demand for raw materials increases to support the growing public, it is crucial to find a set of responsible solutions for waste disposal. Southern Italy’s situation isn’t only Italy’s problem, because flowing water or drifting air currents don’t respect political boundaries.

Picture of woman with oxygen mask in hospital
A patient recovers from surgery after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Recently, in areas where the Mafia is suspected of dumping toxic waste, there has been a spike in respiratory as well as breast and pancreatic cancer.

JANNA: Is there a good solution to the toxic waste problem?

GREG: There is no easy or quick solution to the problems facing the Campania region in Italy. Waste education and cultural practices need to be changed. A major obstacle I see is a lack of organization to combat the issues. Some farmers voluntarily take soil samples to clear their crops from being labeled poisonous. Others don’t, for fear of jeopardizing their livelihood. Some residents pay $400 to send hair samples to testing labs in the United States to check for heavy metal accumulation in their bodies. But not everyone can afford testing. And while the initial efforts are scattered and disorganized, there is a groundswell of reaction to the growing health and environmental crisis. “It’s here now, but it can be anywhere,” Luisa Crisci, a mother that lost her child to a rare brain cancer, said. “The problem is 30 years old, the difference is that we’re aware of it now.”

Picture of researchers in lab
Technicians at a cancer research lab in Mercogliano test treatments on cancer cells to study potential strategies for dealing with the disease.

JANNA: What is remarkable about people’s response to this situation?

GREG: What struck me the most was that there were still many people all over Campania who were not resigned to their circumstances, but instead, kept pushing back against Mafia control. The Mafia are the ones with overwhelming power and money, inflicting consequences of their greed on others. But every year on March 20, thousands gather at the entrance to Casal di Principe, a stronghold of the Camorra, and march through the narrow streets with signs, chanting that they will not be intimidated. It’s a demonstration to commemorate Giuseppe Diana, a local priest that was murdered for telling his parishioners to shun the Mafia. Every year, the protest ends with a rally at Father Diana’s grave giving a sense of purpose to the community that things can be changed.

Picture of government official and media
Gian Luca Galletti, the minister of the environment in Italy, leaves a church in Caivano after talking with angry residents demanding action in dealing with the toxic dumping crisis. Residents have been critical of the Italian government for not doing enough to combat the Mafia’s illegal dumping.

Greg Kahn is a founding member of Grain, a photography collective. View more of Grain’s work and ongoing projects on their website. You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 9 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. tite
    August 3, 2014


  2. Francesco B.
    July 22, 2014

    Thanks for this article. As an aspiring photojournalist dealing at the moment with a story on pollution and contamination in another area of Italy, I can relate to this.
    There are plenty of FACTS and evidence in this case. The area mentioned in this article, called “Terra dei Fuochi”, is only one of 39 majorly polluted sites scattered all over Italy, as listed by the Environmental Ministry in the SIN List (SIN stands for Siti di Interesse Nazionale, or “national interest sites”, published in 1998). These sites cover about 3% of the country and potentially affect millions of people. The total area is of 5.500 square kilometers of contaminated land, and about 1.800 square kilometers of water surfaces, with the largest area being the one mentioned in this article, covering 345.000 hectares.

    Link to the SIN list map

  3. Holly
    July 20, 2014

    I personally expected more from this article after reading the title. I expected evidence, facts and information from experts on the situation in Italy. As a regular reader, I am disappointed with this article as this is a situation that needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. There needs to be a follow up article to this with real facts, evidence and some true knowledge to be able to convince people it’s a true problem, you firstly need a convincing article, this article certainly does not tick that box.

  4. linda357
    July 20, 2014

    This is going on all over the world. People need to WAKE UP!! Our food sources must be contaminated by so many toxic substances. Makes me wonder where we can actually get SAFE food!

  5. Salvatore Paolo De Rosa
    July 19, 2014

    Dear National Geographic,

    My name is Salvatore Paolo De Rosa, I am a PhD candidate at the Human Geography department of Lund University, Sweden, an independent journalist in Italy, and a Fellow of ENTITLE The European Network for Political Ecology.

    I am a frequent reader of National Geographic and I have been negatively surprised by the article “Q&A: Greg Kahn on Exposing Toxic Threats in Italy”, recently published on your website. What I expect from a magazine such as yours, widely read and respected, is at the minimum a detailed and informed narration of controversial issues concerning human-environment relations. What I do not expect are superficial claims and shallow reductionism – and this is exactly what I found in the abovementioned article, but let me explain.

    First of all, a remark. A magazine like NG, when dealing with complex issues such as the twenty-years long waste crisis of Campania, should at least talk with the numerous journalists, researchers and scientists that have spent years in studying the facts behind this environmental disaster and should not let a single photographer (that just got interested in the issue) answer questions like: “Is there a good solution to the toxic waste problem?” This shallowness jeopardizes the trust many readers have in NG.

    Moreover, regarding the article, I have several critiques coming from my experience as a locally based journalist covering the waste crisis and as a researcher currently writing my PhD on this topic.

    What stroke me the most is the one-sided explanation of the crisis as an effect of mafia practices. What has been demonstrated in many police investigations, and in trials that led to heavy convictions, is the simple fact that mafia had a marginal role in the environmental devastation inflicted to Campania. Indeed, what the article forgets to tell the readers is that Campania has been for the last 20 years under a special law regime, “the state of emergency”, through which a government agency was granted special powers to organize the urban waste management in the region and it was allowed the right to impose waste facilities over populations and territories without any prior public consultation. We now know that the government agency has favored the interests of a private company over collective ones by allowing the accumulation of waste and by legitimizing practices of urban waste management environmentally unsustainable. In addition, the government agency and the private company cooperated with mafia-linked haulers and landowners in several moments during the emergency, while State institutions did nothing to halt the well-documented illegal traffic and disposal of industrial waste. Much of the threats to the health of the locals and to their environment come today from the legal, authorized landfills and waste storages disseminated in the region. On the other hand, we have today enough evidence that establish the close mutual benefits of legal industries, government officials and criminal organizations in carrying out the illegal trafficking of tons of industrial waste illegally disposed in the fields and rivers of Campania. Why to insist on a cultural explanation when the carriers and methods that have accumulated waste in the region are well known? Rather than the “sleep of reason”, the photographic project should have been titled “the sleep of democracy”, because of the shrinking of any democratic space of consultation and because of the annulment of basic constitutional rights for the people of Campania.

    Digging into the issues of the illegal trafficking and disposal of toxic waste, then, a more thorough research would have shown to the writer of the article that Italians, and especially Campania people, did not learn about it from Schiavone’s revelations. Indeed, it was not Schiavone who firstly uncovered the practice of illegal toxic waste disposal. Investigations by prosecutors since 1993 collected enough clues to have a clear picture of the business. In particular, we had police officers who documented the routes of the traffic, the places where waste was dumped and the connection between the political world, the industry owners and the mafia. Moreover, we have documents that demonstrate how communities denounced the illegal dumping since 1988; during the 90s, several demonstrations were organized in the provinces of Naples and Caserta by local committees of citizens and by people affiliated to political parties, especially from the left. Why did the State never act?

    Another drawback of the article is the lack of focus on the people of Campania suffering contamination today and the insistence in depicting them as victims. The “psychological torment” is faced by the people not only through depression or fear, but also through organizing and resisting both the mafia rule and the government complicity with the issue. In fact, the biggest demonstration in recent years in Italy was organized by a coalition of Campania social movements on 16 November 2013, where 100.000 people took the streets to denounce State, Industry and Mafia as the responsible in equal shares of the Campania environmental disaster. The movement has recently organized a festival of civic engagement in which music was a mean to convey the narration of the crisis and to push more people to join the ranks of activists. Thanks to the recent demonstrations, the government was forced to deal with the issues through a specific law decree (labelled “the land of fires decree”), that, even though it finally recognizes the harshness of the situation in the region, still fails to address the concerns expressed by the coalition of movements, the request of real democracy being the first and most important. A real democracy to realize through the inclusions of local citizens’ associations and committees at all levels of decisions making, would benefit the region from the point of view of environmental sustainability. Indeed, during years of confrontation with waste, local communities have designed several instruments and proposals for driving the waste management sector, and the land remediation projects, toward more environmentally sound procedures. For example, social movements supported the creation of a tool for monitoring the moving of toxic waste throughout Italy (a GPS-tracking, computerized system for following all trucks transporting the waste and for knowing the details of what they transport), that the State has announced and withdrawn several times. Moreover, the Zero Waste strategy for managing the urban waste, implying reduction, reuse and recycling of waste as priorities, has been proposed by grassroots movements as the best path to exit the disastrous urban waste management cycle centered on landfills and incinerators.

    “A systemic cultural issue of waste disposal” – these explanations obfuscate the complexities and absolve State institutions and legal economic actors. The Campania waste crisis is a political issue, and the author should study and bit of history, economy, ecology and demography before prompting in such essentialist descriptions. Does the author know that much of the waste arriving to Campania comes from outside the region and a network of entrepreneurs, state officials, politicians and mafia affiliates brings it there? Does the author know that the toxic fires are the result of the illegal disposal of many “invisible” small sweatshops fuelling the market of false “branded” garments? Does the author know that the State-private company management led to the saturation of all landfills and to the filling of hectares of fertile, hitherto clean land to accommodate the waste? Does the author know that a new government decree that downgraded polluted sites from national interest to regional one has been recently rejected by a tribunal as outlaw and vehemently denounced by local committees?

    Regarding the health issue. Contamination and the fear of locals to get sick has been dealt by the State in a very shallow way and recent reports of the major health institution in Italy (the Istituto Superiore della Sanitá, ISS), which warns, once again, of increasing cancer incidence among the population, have been dismissed by high government officials through the claim that “the causal connection between waste and cancer has not been scientifically established yet”.

    Yes, locals are worried that the land remediation projects can eventually be entrusted to the same actors that caused the problem in the first place, but the focus is not only on the mafia infiltration but especially on the recent law decrees crafted by previous and current governments which give the possibility to the polluter to use public money in order to remediate the land.

    Finally, I endorse the author’s hope that the Campania issue can trigger discussions worldwide on the ways waste is managed, but only if the narration of the issue goes beyond cultural explanations to address the political and economic processes that, on one side, led to the transformation of a land into a trash can for reasons of profits, and, on the other, reduced the democratic space of confrontation and the capabilities of self-determination of communities exposed to contamination.

    Campania requires, as researcher Giacomo D’Alisa, professor Marco Armiero and myself recently invoked in a comment published on the scientific journal Nature, a different type of research, in which social and natural scientists can accumulate the facts necessary to address the injustices embodied in the current patterns of contamination and exposure and propose solutions.

    I would be pleased to send further readings and references on the issue, if required.

    Best regards,

    Salvatore Paolo De Rosa

  6. L’Americana
    July 19, 2014

    I have less than 2 degrees from several cases of brain cancer in Alta Irpinia, Campania. A remote mountain region east of Napoli. The communities here, 90 km from the city are now affected and fighting the dumping desires of the Camorra (& the local govts) in their pristine farming region.

  7. littledarling
    July 19, 2014

    Look at the world. Look at that. It’s still turning except those residents whom dying for the helpless of government.

  8. Nemos
    July 19, 2014

    Nice story. Nice ANECDOTAL story. No facts, no research, no data, no coherence – all just circumstantial romance and allegations. Not a single picture of any real evidence. How about some real facts. And then we can all get behind this.

  9. erbPIX™
    July 18, 2014

    Follow the money, the world around.

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