Greenpeace exposes Russian dioxin peril

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — You're a worker in an industrial city of provincial Russia, and you haven't been paid in months. You and your family would starve if it weren't for the vegetables you raise in a garden plot on the outskirts of town.

But the plot is less than a kilometre from the local chemical combine. You don't know it, but the soil around your potatoes contains thousands of times the "safe" level of some of the most dangerous toxins known to science — dioxins. You and your family may well face a future of depressed immunity, cancer, birth defects, liver damage, skin diseases and loss of reproductive capacity.

In a way, it's almost a kindness that official secrecy and a lack of research studies mean you don't know the risk you're taking. You've no choice but to keep growing and eating your potatoes. And given the number of years you've been eating them, your health may in any case have been doomed long since.

Dioxins are highly stable compounds that build up in animal tissues over long periods. Even in barely detectable quantities, they can disrupt hormonal systems. Organisms that are not killed outright are often rendered sterile.

For the past three years, Greenpeace Russia has studied the spread of dioxins through the country's wilderness and inhabited landscape. On April 14 Greenpeace presented an expanded and updated version of its booklet on dioxin contamination, Poisoned Cities.

Even for a population used to bad news, the Greenpeace message was shocking. Dioxins are present across nearly three quarters of the country. "Perhaps only the territory of Vietnam, as a result, let's say, of 'chemical aggression', would be more polluted", Professor Venyamin Khudoley told journalists. Khudoley, a renowned cancer specialist and a co-author of the Greenpeace report, was referring to the massive use of dioxin-containing herbicides by US forces during the Vietnam War.

As well as being an unwanted by-product of various production processes in the chemical industry, dioxins are created when free chlorine comes in contact with organic matter, or when organochloride compounds are burned.

In Russia, major sources are chemical plants, incinerators and pulp and paper plants that use chlorine for bleaching purposes. Metallurgical plants that process chloride ores are also a significant source.

The most severe contamination found by Greenpeace has been along the Volga River, in the Urals and in the Moscow and St Petersburg regions — a distribution that broadly corresponds to the pattern of heavy industrialisation.

The worst polluters are generally plants that either produce organochlorides or that use them in large quantities. Primitive technology, worn-out equipment and inadequate waste disposal methods are allowing regular leaks of dioxin-containing materials.

Some of the highest levels of contamination found have been in the city of Serpukhov, 100 kilometres south of Moscow. Until 1988, the Kondensator Production Association in Serpukhov used polychlorinated biphenyls as insulating material in electrical capacitors. According to the Greenpeace report, the content of PCBs in the soil in one residential area of Serpukhov, 300 metres from the Kondensator plant, was 35.7 million times the maximum "acceptable" level.

In Arkhangelsk province in the north of European Russia, concentrations of dioxins were found to increase sharply near all pulp and paper mills. Levels of airborne dioxins were particularly high; in the city of Novodvinsk, one air sample obtained by Greenpeace exceeded the Dutch tolerance limit by 1825 times.

Apart from factory furnaces and burning waste dumps, the sources of airborne dioxins in Arkhangelsk province include the launching of solid-fuel rockets from the Plesetsk cosmodrome.

Greenpeace had only limited success in finding data about the level of dioxin contamination in Moscow. A 1993 study, however, revealed levels at or above the Russian tolerance limit in 7.7% of samples of Moscow drinking water. This Russian limit is 2000 times higher than the one that applies in the US and Germany.

The highest concentrations of airborne dioxins in Moscow were found near waste incinerators. These are being used to dispose of waste containing polyvinyl chloride, a widely used plastic that gives off dioxins when burned. The problem can be solved if the temperature of incineration is raised to 1200 degrees, but Russia's incinerator plants operate at much lower temperatures.

Taking in dioxins with their food, water and the air they breathe, it is not surprising that many urban Russians have accumulated alarming quantities in their tissues. According to US scientist Arnold Schecter, head of the Faculty of Prophylactic Medicine at New York University, the average citizen of Ufa, a centre of the chemical industry in the southern Urals, has three or four times more dioxins in his or her body than the average American — and almost as much as is commonly found among Vietnamese.

In areas of Russia with high dioxin levels, Greenpeace found, the public health situation was often catastrophic. In the city of Chapaevsk, the heavily polluted site of a large pesticide complex, the death rate is 30-35% above the general figure for the surrounding Samara province.

In another centre of the chemical industry, Novocheboksarsk on the upper Volga, experts put the overall level of sickness at 50% above that for the country as a whole. Infant mortality in Novocheboksarsk is about three times the Russian average, with congenital defects the main cause.

The most appalling damage to health is probably to be seen in the city of Dzerzhinsk, in Nizhny Novgorod province east of Moscow. "There is not one healthy person there", Greenpeace's toxic campaign coordinator, Aleksey Kiselev, says of Dzerzhinsk, adding that the average lifespan in the city is 50 years. With a dozen chemical plants, Dzerzhinsk is described by Kiselev as "one of the dirtiest cities in Russia, maybe even the world".

Greenpeace has had trouble assembling precise figures on the dioxin hazard and on the impact on health. Part of the reason is obstruction from local authorities. In Dzerzhinsk, Aleksey Kiselev relates, local officials refused to release any medical data, citing a 1939 order by the NKVD security police. A further problem is an acute shortage of measuring equipment.

In none of the cases of dioxin contamination observed by Greenpeace has the federal government taken meaningful countermeasures. "Not a single dioxinogenic production facility has yet been shut down in Russia by decision of the federal authorities", Greenpeace notes.

Funding has now reportedly been made available for a federal program to protect citizens and the environment from radioactive and other poisons. But according to Venyamin Khudoley, the program provides only for research, and offers no concrete help for enterprises that need to replace dioxin-producing technology.

The authorities might seem to be in a position analogous to that of the potato-growers on the edge of the chemical plants — facing an environmental and health catastrophe if they carry on as before, but constrained by their financial crisis from taking effective steps to put things right.

However, the federal government is not really so deserving of sympathy. This is shown by a contrasting example — that of the authorities in the Republic of Bashkortostan in the southern Urals. One of the areas of Russia worst hit by dioxin pollution, Bashkortostan launched a program as far back as 1993. This program, Greenpeace reports, has already begun yielding results, "unlike the federal program of the same name, which exists only on paper."

The government of Bashkortostan plans to spend a total of 200 billion roubles (currently about US$35 million) on its program by the year 2000. What Bashkortostan has been able to achieve, the federal authorities could have accomplished on a much broader scale. The real problem is not one of finances, but of environmental consciousness and political will.