Italy steel plant blamed for spike in child cancer cases

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The Ilva steel plant in Taranto.
10:45 CEST+02:00
The rate of cancer among children in Taranto, southern Italy - home to the Ilva steel plant - is 30 percent higher than the national average, the first report into cancer rates in the region shows.

The most alarming figures relate to the city of Taranto, where a high concentration of factories, including the Ilva site, has had a negative impact on the local air quality. Cancer of the lungs or bronchus was the most common variety.

As well as the elevated risk of tumours, children under 14 living close to the polluting Ilva plant are three times more likely than their peers to suffer from asthma or respiratory problems.

Airtum (the Italian Association of Cancer Registries) analysed data from between 2006 and 2011 to create the report, which was made public on Saturday.

The latest figures confirm earlier data from June which showed high rates of lung cancer, and also raised concerns over the adequacy of the local health system; the lack of a specialist pulmonology department in Taranto's main hospital, for example.

Taranto's local governor Michele Emiliano has repeatedly called on Matteo Renzi's government to do more to guarantee the health of Apulian residents, while the city's mayor Ippazio Stefàno, who is a doctor, said in June that residents were not kept informed of the risk to their health, which led to widespread anxiety.

"We want to know the real levels of emissions in order to protect public health. Italian standards are respected here, but European and international standards are much more stringent," he said.

In the region of Apulia as a whole, 20,000 tumours are reported every year - a rate more or less in line with the national average. Men are most at danger of cancer affecting the lungs (which makes up 18.1 percent of cases) while for women, breast cancer is the biggest risk (29.2 percent).

The data also looked at survival and mortality rates within five years of diagnosis; again, the data for the region was in line with the national average, and Airtum's president, Lucia Mangone, praised the region for its screening of the disease, pointing to the fact that despite the higher incidence of cancer in southern Italy compared to the north, cancer sufferers were more likely to survive the disease.

The Ilva site in Taranto, which provides work for around 16,000 people, has been under special administration since 2013 after the the Riva family who ran the site were accused of failing to prevent toxic emissions including carcinogenic particles from spewing out across the town.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised to clean up Ilva and sell it on, but even amidst fears over toxic pollution, many locals want it to remain open for fear of the consequences of closure in an area with an already high unemployment level.

Taranto is not the only area of southern Italy where the government has failed to tackle the effects of toxic pollution on public health.

In July 2015, the government was fined €20 million by the European Court of Justice for failing to deal with the toxic waste crisis in the so-called 'Land of Fires' in Campania; an area where hundreds of illegal rubbish dumps created by the Camorra mafia group have led to a spike in cancer rates, with children particularly severely affected.

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In January this year, an official report confirmed for the first time the link between mafia toxic waste and high cancer rates in the region.

READ MORE: The Italians fighting illness from toxic waste

Some 55 municipalities in the southern Campania region, suffered disproportionately high rates of cancer, the study by Italy's National Institute of Health found, with a particularly high rate of tumours among young children.

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