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  A Threat to Health?
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   Lena and son/The Post
Lena Savolyuk, 25, says she and her sons have to eat the fish from the Yenisei River because they cannot afford anything else.
(By Lucian Perkins – The Washington Post)
The levels of radiation that have been measured in the area around the Yenisey are not likely to cause immediate sickness in people exposed to them. But many studies have demonstrated that populations exposed to even small amounts of increased radiation experience an increase in cancer cases, birth defects and other diseases over time. The radionuclides that have been found in the Yenisey are particularly hazardous because they are relatively long-lived and can get into the food chain; the half-life of plutonium is 24,360 years.

But the Russian authorities have not accepted the claim by some scientists that a serious health hazard exists.

In 1990, the Soviet Union's State Committee for Nature Protection appointed a special commission to study the health effects of the plutonium factory. The commission found that the plant had no major impact on the health of the population. The factory maintains this position today. Morozov, the spokesman, said that in the villages closest to the river, "the radiation situation is normal and can't lead to a worsening of the health of the population."

But independent experts dispute that conclusion.

Vladimir Mazharov, head of the laboratory at the Institute of Complex Problems of Hygiene and Occupational Diseases, of the Siberian division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has compared medical statistics from three rural river districts closest to the factory with "control" districts elsewhere in the region. He also studied the incidence of disease in the population in the 1950s, before the plutonium factory began operating in 1958, and in the years after operations began.

Many of the known indicators of radiation effects on people are evident in the river valley. For example, the overall cancer mortality rate in the river districts increased from 88.9 per 100,000 people before the factory was built in the 1950s to 134.4 in the years after it was built, according to Mazharov. By contrast, there was no increase in the cancer mortality rate in the control districts.

He said mortality among women from breast cancer in the same period went from 1.9 to 10.9 cases per 100,000 women, while there was no increase in the control districts.

He said childhood death from leukemia was higher for those closer to the plutonium factory, and decreased farther away.

In a report presented before a conference in Spain last year sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mazharov and other experts reported finding an increase in death from cancers related to radioactivity – breast cancers, leukemia, bronchopulmonary cancers, thyroid cancers, bone cancers and skin cancers.

Besides increased incidence of cancer, they said, a higher incidence of complicated pregnancies and birth defects was found along the river. They also reported that people living near the river had genetic abnormalities and weakened immune systems.

Overall, Mazharov reported, people living downstream from the plant had a "clearly unfavorable" health situation. But the statistics also left some questions unanswered, and Mazharov said without precise information on the contamination and dosages received by the population, he could not reach firm conclusions.

"I am a specialist in social hygiene," he said, "and I always try to understand what is affecting people's health. I am looking for factors. And when I see no factors, I cannot connect these things to anything, but the one thing that is relevant. And there is only one relevant factor on this territory," he said, "the Mining and Chemical Combine."

'What Can We Do About It?'

Even if the factory and government authorities were to acknowledge the dangers, the prospects of cleaning up the Yenisey River pollution are slim. Russia's economy has been in a depression for five years, and money is scarce for new research, not to mention for a hugely expensive cleanup of a turbulent Siberian river or evacuation of a string of rural villages. The river is prone to flash floods, and the radioactive particles often get tossed from one place to another.

"The trouble is, no one knows how many of these spots there are," said Vladimir Tetelmin, a member of Russia's lower house of parliament who represents the Yenisey region.

Tetelmin has searched in vain for money to clean up severely contaminated Gorodskoi Island, near the city of Yeniseysk. "Where is the money to come from?" he asked. "To rehabilitate all this contaminated area in the Yenisey – all of Russia's money will not be enough. Maybe all of America's money will not be enough. Maybe the whole world doesn't have enough because the Yenisey is very long. "

Natalya Kupriyanova, 35, strolling with her 12-year-old son Sergei in the village of Atamanovo, at the crest of the riverbank, said the people living by the Yenisey are aware of the hazards, but have little recourse. "We'd like someone to do something," she said. "But pensions are so small, people have to eat fish. You can't say we don't care – we do care. But it's the bitter truth: What can we do about it? How are the young people going to live? I fear they won't live to old age."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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