The reasons are carefully listed in a $30 million study commissioned by the US Navy in 2011 -- a paper that was only brought to the attention of Italians via an article in the magazine L'Espresso. It's title: "Drink Naples and die."
The Americans took soil, water and air samples from the thousands of square kilometers surrounding the base, with 5,281 contaminated or suspicious locations being identified. It was found that water from 92 percent of the private wells sampled outside the base posed an "unacceptable health risk." In 5 percent of the samples, uranium levels were found to be "unacceptably high." The most embarrassing verdict for Italians? "Over time, it became evident that lack of enforcement by responsible institutional bodies contributed to the current situation in Naples."
Should a soldier elect to live off base, he or she is advised to live in a multi-story building and to avoid ground-floor apartments; contamination from toxic gases is lower on upper floors. Three areas not far from the base have been declared completely off-limits.
In the meantime, the more than 500,000 Italians who live in the region north of Naples are trying to make the best of their situation. They spend their evenings in places like the Goldhotel in Marcianise, right in the heart of the residential zone that is forbidden for American troops. They don't ask three times where the vegetables in their insalata mista come from or where the buffalo, whose milk was used for the mozzarella, grazed.
Indeed, much of the produce from the region is still considered to be uncontaminated and there are several harvests per year. Yet there are still days when even upright men such as General Sergio Costa from the national forest service have the feeling they are looking through the "gates of Hell:" on the day in November, for example, when he and his men dug up barrels of toxic waste from beneath cauliflower fields in Caivano. The plastic gloves some of the officers were using to handle the waste dissolved on contact.
Europe's Nastiest Landfill
Further west in Giugliano, 500 Roma live in shacks and caravans at the foot of what is probably Europe's nastiest landfill, stuffed with, among other things, toxic sludge and dioxin. It is a place where, in the opinion of the responsible government commissioner, a "sarcophagus like in Chernobyl" would be necessary to protect the public. According to a geological study, a disaster of such finality isn't expected there for another 50 years -- until then, the poisons will continue to "contaminate dozens of square kilometers of land and everyone who lives there."
Antonio Marfella from the Italian Cancer Research Institute in Naples offers other sober findings: Tumors have increased by 47 percent among men in the province of Naples within the past two decades. Above all, the occurrence of lung carcinoma is increasing, even among non-smokers -- a rarity in Europe. The region of Campania now has the highest infertility rate in Italy and also leads in cases of severe autism -- triggered, experts suspect, by increased exposure to mercury.
That autistic children now play on the precious marble in the villa of the incarcerated Casalesi boss known as Sandokan is one piece of good news out of Naples. The residence was confiscated and transformed into a social center for the autistic.
There are other signs of hope elsewhere: when angry farmers, who are forced to sell their suspicious produce at ridiculously low prices, come together and discuss eco-agriculture as a model for the future, for instance. Or when Padre Maurizio Patriciello preaches to his flock.
The pastor of Caivano is a symbol of resistance in the toxic belt around Naples, a silver-tongued rebel in long robes who commands an audience when he says he can no longer look at all the "white coffins of children" in his church. On this morning he has placed photos of the children he has buried in the past few years close to the altar while he talks about how locals have begun to fight back.
'Despair Is Spreading'
"Early on, we didn't even know what was happening in the next parish," says the pastor, "until we began to organize ourselves. Since we started adding up the cancer deaths, there is fear -- and despair is spreading."
Padre Maurizio preaches, comforts and fights practically around the clock. He encourages believers to be vigilant and perform their civic duties. He teaches schoolchildren to keep a closer eye on politicians and on the Carabinieri. He has lobbied the senate in Rome and the European Parliament in Brussels for assistance, and he has requested an audience with Pope Francis.
Civil rights campaigners working with Padre Maurizio have sent 150,000 postcards, depicting mothers looking into the camera while holding photos of their dead children on their laps, to the pope and to President Napolitano. More than 100,000 people attended a protest march in November in Naples -- solidarity with the Land of Fires.
The petite Anna was on the front line of demonstrators. Her son Riccardo, a "boy who smiled constantly," was 20 months old when he died of leukemia in 2009. The children in this area have been "murdered, you understand? Murdered!" Anna shouts from the stage in Naples. "We demand first and last names, and not just of the Camorra people," she continues. "Everyone should pay for multiple murders and crimes against humanity!"
"Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!" the crowd echoes from below; the name of President Napolitano is hardly mentioned. The state and the Mafia, it's "more or less the same thing," Schiavone told the parliamentary committee in Rome way back in 1997.
Radioactive Waste from East Germany
Of course the influence of the Casalesi clan didn't -- nor does it now -- end on Italy's northern border, Schiavone says, sitting by the fireplace at his villa, adding that he said the same thing to the German federal police who interrogated him in Munich and Rome. "We had one of our men in Germany, who had contacts to politicians there," said Schiavone. "Through him, among others, came the toxic waste, including nuclear, to the company in Milan."
Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office confirms that a meeting with Schiavone took place in 1994 and that it pertained to Casalesi activities on German soil. But officials say they have no recollection of discussions over toxic or nuclear waste.
Schiavone insists, however, that radioactive material "presumably from East Germany" was delivered in lead containers around 50 centimeters long. The containers were then buried "up to 20 meters deep -- but the probe, which was later used for measurements, only went six meters deep."
According to the prefect of the Campania region, the information provided by Schiavone is being verified. But for small quantities of radioactive material, he said, that could take a while.