A living nightmare

Wednesday 15 September 1999

Thousands of people, including orphan children, face a bleak future living in the world's most polluted city

KEDR, the Moscow-based environmental organisation is trying all means -- including children's art -- to draw public attention to the orphans of the town of Karabash, a small industrial city located 130 km north of Chelyabisnk, in the foothills of the Urals. Karabash is the most polluted city in the world, according to the United Nations Environment Programme estimates.

"They are children who lost their mothers and fathers and we took away clean water from them," said Natalya Nelidova, an artist and Kedr activist, during a recent press conference, as she showed a piece of children's art featuring a crying girl with a message: "I want to die."

The source of the pollution in the town, inhabited by 16,000 people, is the Karabash copper-smelting plant. Built in 1915, the plant was closed by officials in 1987 but resumed work in April 1998 as it was the only source of jobs for the town's residents. But soon there will not be anyone to work, says one activist. According to Kedr estimates, in 1996, the annual mortality rate in Karabash was 17 per 1,000 people, while the birth rate was 7.5 for every 1,000 inhabitants -- nearly half that of the death rate.

For many years the plant, a source of copper and zinc for the Soviet defence industry, was affecting the soil and water in Karabash and thereby poisoning the locals, who were unaware of the nature of their health problems. "It was all undercover during the Soviet times. But it was possible for the factory officials to provide health insurance for the workers and provide summer camps for their children," said Andrey Aleshin, a priest from the neighbouring city of Troitsk, who frequently travels to Karabash on volunteer missions.

According to Kedr statistics, 60 per cent of Karabash children have high concentrations of lead in their hair and 23 per cent have similar levels of lead in their blood. Doctors say that they will possibly live only up to 40 years, if nothing changes. "The situation here leaves much to be desired," said Yevgeny Shramm, chairperson of the Karabash ecology committee, who added that some of the local residents are planning to file a case against the plant. It will cost tens of thousands of dollars to clean up Karabash, and the situation can be resolved only on the federal level, Shramm believes. But nothing has been done: "Everything that the Russian government promised us, has not been received," Shramm said. The future of the Karabash orphans -- who are currently vacationing in the ecologically clean zone -- remains unclear. It will cost around us $300,000 to build a new orphanage, but money is not the biggest issue here, said Alexander Panfilov, Kedr chairperson.

"We are going to prepare a draft of a law that requires children's facilities not be located in environmental disaster-prone zones," Panfilov said. He added that around 50-60 per cent of the children's facilities in Russia are located in such zones. Kedr also plans to participate in the next parliamentary elections, which is scheduled for December 1999.

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