THE TOWN GROWING ON CHEMICAL WEAPONS
[caption id="attachment_13950" align="aligncenter" width="514" caption="PHOTOS BY DMITRY LEVASHOV"][/caption]
Dzerzhinsk is 400 kilometres east of Moscow. The average life expectancy in the city is in the forties. Environmentalists aren’t sure whether this is more to do with huge, poorly regulated industrial plants dumping waste in the ground, water and air, or because the town was the former epicentre of the Soviet chemical weapons industry. This is the place where they made all the fun stuff like mustard gas, sarin, the blister agent lewisite, and the old favourite cyanide. We had a chat with Dmitry Levashov, who lives there and is pretty stoical about these things.
Vice: So, you live in one of the most environmentally devestated cities in the world. What’s the situation?
Dmitry Levashov: The situation here, pollution-wise, has not changed since the mid-90s when industry collapsed. In 1995 the only industrial landfill in the region closed down. So between 1995 and 2005, when a new one opened, all the factories in Dzerzinsk were, as some eco officials liked to say, "shitting on themselves". All the chemical waste was stored in old warehouses, derelict factories or just buried in the ground. Even after the new landfill opened it didn’t solve the problem, because it still was cheaper to dump the waste in an unregulated way.
So your town grows from a chemical grave? How does this pollution affect people in the town, medically?
The main health problems caused by pollution are respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and gastrointestinal problems.
Sounds lovely. Are these problems caused by contaminated water, air and food?
Water contamination started happening right back in the 1920-30s. Soil contamination is definitely a factor too; it gets badly polluted from the chemical waste from the industrial plants. The air pollution is constant, but it only smells sometimes.
That’s something I guess. Could you tell us more about the chemicals that cause these illnesses?
There are about 50 landfills brimming with industrial and chemical waste in the town. Primarily the waste contaminates the subterranean water, which is used by people living in villages nearby. For example, in a reservoir situated 50 metres down from the Beloe More (White Sea) factory, the water is salty because the chlorogenic compounds have been leaking into it from the concrete dump for the last 30 years.
And you drink that?
Water wells around Eastern villages have got high concentration of phenol. My family and I drank water from them all the time. Medical inspectors found a whole bouquet of contaminants in the water, but in Soviet times even if they reported it, it never went further. Obviously, people don’t live at landfills so mainly contamination affects the digestive and cardiovascular system of those who live or work near the factories and landfills. Respiratory diseases are mainly caused by air pollution that’s coming from the White Sea factory or from the chemical plants nearby.
What links are there to chemical weapons?
They used to produce mustard gas and lewisite at factory called Kaprolaktam in the late-90s. I interviewed a few of the survivors that used to work at the weapons production sites in Dzerzinsk. One of them, called I.B. Kotlyar, told me some shocking things. He said the air in the workspaces was filled with mustard gas fumes. There were regular spillages – often just cleaned up with sawdust and then degassed by chlorine chalk. Neither gas masks, rubber overalls, rubber boots or gloves helped to prevent severe damage to the skin, lungs and eyes. In every shift, the workers were split into two groups; while one was working the other was being treated.
Then what happened?
In the 50s, a furnace was built in the factory to get rid of mustard gas and lewisite waste. It created a massive risk of cancer for all the workers and any residents who lived nearby. Another industrial plant in Dzerzinsk was mainly used for prussic or hydrocyanic acid production. Unsurprisingly, air pollution in towns and villages around it during and after the Second World War was mainly caused by prussic acid contamination. In the 50s, fluorine-hydrogen was also added to the list of dangerous pollutants. The other factory in the region was producing phosgene, another highly toxic component. All four of these compounds were used for creating chemical weapons. They were making chemical weapons and rockets here, sometimes with very primitive tools, like teapots.
How high was the risk to non-factory workers?
According to the data from the beginning of the 60s, the concentration of toxins in the local kindergarden was the same as at the factories. Around that time the effects that the pollution had on children became increasingly evident – cases of blood diseases and severe shifts in metabolisms, things like that.
It basically sounds fucked. Why have you not left?
Why would I leave? My great-great-grandparents lived here. I have about 40 relatives nearby. My wife is due to give birth in two months, so maybe we might move after that. She teaches ecology, so she is very concerned. I'm not so worried; I have seen and smelled worse while travelling around the country. There are problems, of course – I get tired easily and my lungs are a bit week. We also had some problems with conception, but I'll worry about that some other time.
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