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Italy's Environmental Minister Rails Against Worsening Mediterranean Pollution; 'A Lot of Talk and Little Action'

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CAIRO, Egypt -- Italy's environment minister, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio on Monday said that pollution in the Mediterrean has worsened over the past 30 years and blamed the situation on inaction. "The truth is that in the Mediterranean, there is a lot of talk and little action... it cannot become a dumping ground," said Pecoraro Scanio. He and 20 other environment ministers from the European Union and the 12 countries of the Mediterranean basin were gathered in the Egyptian capital to review environmental progress in the region. It is the first time the Euromediterranean ministerial conference - now in its third year - has been held in one of the southern Mediterranean states.

"In thirty years, care of the Mare Nostrum (the Latin name for the Mediterranean) has not improved but on the contrary has worsened. And there is little awareness of the impact with regard to the populations who live on its shores. Much of fish we eat comes from the Mediterranean, so if we pollute it, we are polluting ourselves," Pecoraro Scanio said.

Mercury levels in fish in the Mediterranean are 20 times the maximum levels recommended by the UN Word Health Organisation (WHO), while human intake of polycylic hydrocarbons - derived chiefly from petroleum and coal tar - are 100 times permissible levels, according to the UN's environment agency UNEP's anti-pollution programme for the region, MEDPOL.

Mercury and other heavy metals enter humans via the food chain and can cause damage to the central nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems, as well as heart disease and an increase in cancer rates.

Pecoraro Scanio stressed the importance of bilateral cooperation, citing seven programmes underway between Italy and Egypt - which he described as "a strategically important country in the region." Four of these relate to renewable or clean energy, while another is centred on the distribution of water resources to a village in the upper Sinai with a population of 10,000.

"There are projects concerned with boosting solar power to meet the energy needs of a very populous country that signed up to the United Nations Kyoto Protocol [to cut greenhouse gas emissions] and whose economy is based on tourism," said Pecoraro Scanio.

He criticised the media for failing to raise awareness of long-term environmental issues in the region, such as increasing salinity in the eastern Mediterranean, or the rising temperature of seawater, for example in the Strait of Messina in southern Italy, which reached 29 C this summer.

We only need to remember that in Italy, while there have beeen numerous studies of individual phenomena or events, no comprehensive study of the state of health of the Mediterranean Sea has been carried out. There is much we don't know, and for this reason, I have sought funding for such an in-depth survey in Italy's 2007 budget," he stated.

At the conference, the 21 environment ministers presented a dossier entitled "The Seven Capital Crimes of Industry'. Oil companies, the heavy metals, chemicals and fertilisers industries, are fingered by the dossier as the worst polluters of the Mediterranean, as they produce real poisons that jeopardise the environment and human health.

"We have a shared obligation and problem, which the media should do more to highlight and help prevent the Mediterranean from becomes a polluted and eutrophic sea like the Baltic," Pecoraro Scanio concluded, adding that a goal is to reverse by 2020 the current trend towards increasing pollution in the Mediterranean.

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