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NAPLES, Italy — By November, U.S. personnel living in Naples should learn the results of the first phase of the Navy’s health assessment to determine if living in Naples poses a health hazard.

U.S. Navy officials say Americans started voicing concerns about one and a half years ago — prompting them to embark on the study.

But health concerns have plagued this southern Italian metropolis for decades. The city has endured years of crises: uncollected trash, illegal burning of garbage, dumping of toxic waste and reports of a rise in cancer rates and respiratory problems.

"In summer of ’07, concerns — American concerns — because of the trash, raised some questions about health and safety and possible risks to people living in the Campania region," said Capt. Bruce Anderson, deputy commander of Navy Region Europe.

Then, in December 2007, yet another trash crisis pummeled Naples, drawing international attention and reports of an inept local government unable to offset mafia control of the lucrative garbage disposal business. For several months this winter, thousands of tons of uncollected rubbish piled up on city streets after trash haulers stopped collecting it.

The crisis caused the Navy to accelerate its study of possible health risks, Anderson said. It launched a multimillion dollar, broad health assessment to determine if living in Naples puts U.S. personnel at risk.

In January, experts from the Virginia-based Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center began setting parameters and testing schedules to collect, test and analyze samples taken from the air, water and soil in areas where Americans live.

"This Naples Public Health Evaluation is a site-specific assessment that determines the likelihood of exposure to hazardous material in the environment that could result in adverse health effects to our people," said Paul Gillooly, the center’s leader for the Naples study.

The study has been divided into three parts:

A review of already published studies by Italian experts regarding environmental or public health issues in Naples and Caserta. Assessments of air, soil, soil gas and tap water samples from off-base houses rented by Americans in the region. Three epidemiological studies. One to determine if asthma or persistent upper respiratory illness symptoms worsen for Navy personnel and their families while living Naples. A second to determine if there is an increase in birth defects in children born to women who conceived or were pregnant while living in Naples, compared to birth outcomes for the Navy in general. A third to determine if there are changes in cancer rates for Navy personnel and families living in Naples compared to cancer rates for the Navy in general.The total funding for health assessment for fiscal 2008 is $12.7 million, and officials have asked for an additional $17.6 million for fiscal 2009.

Phase I of the project tested air, soil and water at 166 off-base houses out of roughly 1,500 leased by Americans from Italian landlords. Of those, tap water in nearly one-third of the homes tested positive for the presence of bacteria, including total and fecal coliform. A majority of those homes are serviced by well water.

Experts also found traces of the volatile organic compound tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene), or PCE, in the tap water of three homes in the town of Casal di Principe. The Navy is requiring those families to move.

Following the tap water results, the Navy urged all off-base residents to use bottled water for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth and making ice. This week, the Navy will begin distributing free water to eligible off-base residents, officials say.

But it’s not just water with which the Navy is concerned.

"We’ve also developed nine air stations that are set up across the Campania region so that we can sample air in the region over the course of a year to see if there is any risk from the pollutants in the air," Anderson said.

The nine air monitoring stations will be able to detect contaminants such as dioxins and pesticides and help experts determine the health effects of burning garbage and fields.

The U.S. Naval Hospital at the support site has set up a notification and information center for anyone who might have health-related questions, said Dr. (Cmdr.) Timothy Halenkamp, head of the base’s preventive medical and occupational health office.

Officials will use the Phase I results to plan action for the next step — identifying and separating potentially problematic areas from "clean" ones, officials said.

"We expect the next phase of the study to be complete toward the end of 2009," Anderson said. "What happens after 2009 will depend on what we find during the course of our investigation."

The Navy’s mission is not to clean up Naples or find the source of what might be contaminating the water people drink or the air they breathe, officials said.

"The point of the study is not to go out and be the Italian EPA because, for one, we can’t do that," Gillooly said. " When we find risk or levels of chemicals … in the air, the soil, the water, we’re taking action based on that, and we will turn that information over to the Italians and at that point, if they are so inclined, they will find the source themselves."

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