THE Pope has waded into a scandal over the mafia's dumping of toxic waste by telephoning a campaigning nun in a contaminated area outside Naples known as the "Land of Fire".
Pope Francis contacted Sister Teresa on her mobile phone as she was teaching at a primary school in the town of Casal di Principe, home of an "ecomafia" responsible for illegal dumping that has caused a rise in cancer rates.
The mother superior was among 150,000 people who inundated the Pope with postcards showing local children who had died of cancer.
On her card, she included her mobile number.
"When I heard his voice I was about to faint," Sister Teresa said. "I remember only that the children realised it was the Pope on the phone and began to scream with delight. He blessed me. He thanked us. I was left astonished."
Father Maurizio Patriciello, the local priest who organised the postcard campaign, said he believed the Pope would visit the blighted community.
If he does, he would be highlighting a national scandal as he did on his first official trip, to visit boatpeople on the island of Lampedusa.
His predecessor, Benedict XVI, spoke out against the mafia in Sicily in 2010.
The farmland around Casal di Principe has become known as "Land of Fire" because waste is burned continually in open-air dumps.
Cancer rates have soared after the Naples' Camorra mafia, particularly the Casalesi clan from Casal di Principe, polluted the area with toxic waste, said to include radioactive sludge from German reactors.
A 2010 US military study, published in L'Espresso magazine, warns American personnel in Naples, home of the Sixth Fleet, to use bottled water even to brush their teeth.
This month, the government closed about 7ha of farmland after tests revealed massive amounts of manganese, fluorides and arsenic in the water.
The Agriculture Ministry said it was stepping up checks on fruit and vegetables grown in the area.
Organised crime controls almost 70 per cent of the restaurants and bars in the centre of Rome, the area's Mayor says.
Sabrina Alfonsi said the economic crisis had made the problem worse as business owners accepted bribes to launder money.