Environment and health
Ecological Situation in Central Asia Series

A thirteen years old boy whose eyes were as deep black as the locally grown grapes was struggling to remember five new English words. He was fighting to remember them for the third lesson in a row. Private lessons paid for by his parents do not help much since the boy has very poor memory.
- This is the third case of this kind I am dealing with, - says the boy's English language teacher. – Contemporary children have very poor memory hindering their ability to study foreign languages… By the way, the other two children are also from Semipalatinsk.
This may be a coincidence that children born in a region where Soviet Union tested its nuclear weapons do not have particularly agile memory. Or, maybe, it is not.

In June 2000 Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, hosted the third Nation-wide scientific conference entitled «Ecology and children's health». The event was dedicated to addressing issues related to health conditions of women and children living in Kazakhstan, particularly in ecologically disadvantaged regions. Here are some of the facts presented at the conference.

Children of Semipalatinsk

Experts assessed environmental impacts on health conditions of children living in Semipalatinsk. For research purposes the city can be divided into two zones: A zone – more central and well-off; B zone – home to the city's silicate, concrete and other plants, parts of Irtysh river where industrial wastes are dumped, as well as multiple heat-generation facilities. The city's major polluters include: CJSC Zement, Suuk-Bulak mine, Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center Radiation Security and Ecology Institute, divisions of AES Semipalatinsk TETS Ltd., JSC Silicate, Helfiz Ltd., JSC Andas-Altyn. Some of these enterprises have been working for more than 20 years without any permissions authorizing discharge of harmful substances. Out of the city's 177 heat-generation facilities only 77 have dust collectors. In the meanwhile, in 1999 seven major industrial enterprises discharged 16.2 thousand tones of wastes. Atmospheric air pollution caused by motor vehicles constitutes more than 50% of all emissions. Currently this ever-growing threat to the city's atmosphere is almost totally out of control. In 1998-1999 calibrating explosions took place in Degelen mountain range mines to support nuclear weapons infrastructure destruction and seismic equipment calibration. Several industrial enterprises have radioactive sources of ionizing radiation.

In areas of Irtysh river basin targeted for industrial and Semiplatinsk liquid household wastes discharge, water quality is deteriorating and is currently classified as class 4 – polluted waters. In 1999 approximate discharge volumes were expected to amount to 13.6 million cubic meters. In reality 17.56 million cubic meters were dumped (in 1998 – 14.5 million cubic meters). 1998-1999 research indicated an increase in the number of respiratory organs disease cases among children: 34,117 cases registered in 1999. Pneumonia was diagnosed in 745 cases (575 cases registered in 1998). The number of children diagnosed with asthma doubled (22 cases as opposed to 11 a year earlier). The number of chronic bronchitis cases skyrocketed to 215 in 1999 from 31 in 1998. The number of allergic riniths patients increased 4.5 times (from 138 to 627), while obstructive respiratory organs diseases were diagnosed in 27 cases as opposed to 18 in 1998.

The same correlation holds for infectious and parasites-related diseases, blood diseases (1287 in 1999 up from 1266 in 1998), skin diseases (4301 up from 4108), reproductive system diseases (1828 in 1999 up from 1094 in 1998). Obviously there is a direct correlation between Semipalatinsk region pollution and diseases among the region's children. Health risks caused by ionizing radiation become particularly relevant for Semipalatinsk region. Nuclear tests brought massive areas to the brink of catastrpohy. The Semipalatinsk nuclear testing range operated in a densly populated area posing a major threat to all inhabitants. On the other hand the tragic impact of the nuclear testing range subjecting people to small and large dozes of radiation created an opportunity for assessment of long-term radiation impacts on public health. Some of the most serious long-term ionizing radiation impacts include development of cancerous tumors. Analysis of documentation accumulated in Semipalatinsk region in 1957-1997 indicates major increases in child mortality rates resulting from cancerous blood diseases. There were two child mortality rate peaks: the first one took place in 1965-73 (8.5 per 100 thousand children), the second one dates back to 1983-88 (7.7). The second peak corresponds to the second generation of children who felt the radiation impact of surface tests. Studies detect high probability of developmental deficiencies at birth (for example, Down syndrome).

The number of children with disabilities is growing

All over the world the number of children with developmental disabilities and cerebral pathologies is increasing. Back in 1990 World Health organization reported that up to 70% of infant deaths were related to cerebral pathologies. In Saint-Petersburg the number of children born with cerebral pathologies approaches 40%. Currently up to 50% of children can not effectively master grade school curriculum. Consequently, issues of brain development disabilities have shifted from the scientific and clinical dimension to the social one. In Kazakhstan the number of people with disabilities is great and it is constantly increasing. Out of 10 children at least one is born with major physical or mental disabilities. One fifth of all children requires social adaptation and pedagogical correction. People are dissatisfied with the quality of medical and social care provided to these children. However, the society in general and medical institutions in particular do not fully grasp and understand causes leading to constant deterioration of the situation.

It is an established fact that health conditions depend on environmental factors. Currently various teratogenes and mutagenes are constant elements of our biosphere. World Health Organization estimates that worldwide inherited or at-birth pathologies cause 20% of child diseases and 15-20% of child deaths. Those children with inherited pathologies or the ones developed before birth who survive through the infancy stage are usually prone to mental retardation, cerebral palsy, hearing or visual impairments, pathologies impacting motor skills.

In accordance with the data presented in the National environmental protection action plan for sustainable development published in July 1997 in Almaty across the nation there are no environmental components that can be characterized as normal. In addition to the natural mutations level there are other adverse factors: physical (internal and external radiation, high and low temperatures, magnetic and ultraviolate radiation, vibrations etc.); chemical (industrial wastes and wastes resulting from military industrial complex operations, emissions caused by spacecraft launches, agricultural wastes, motor vehicle pollution, chemical products, medicines, nicotine, alcohol, drugs). A study involving multiple factors allowed to define their impacts on brain development deficiencies and establish that the factor type does not determine the type of brain development pathology. Duration of the impact, combination of adverse factors and their magnitude determine severity level of a brain or nervous system pathology. If the harmful agent's impact coincides with critical periods, such as 21-24-29-32-40 weeks for the frontal brain core zones, the consequences may be particularly disastrous leading to the fetus or infant death. In less severe cases this may result in various types of developmental disabilities. Destructive impact on the brain may be so severe that the actual act of birth will serve as a distress for the infant. There is an array of factors leading to development and greater severity of developmental deficiencies among children and child mortality. Overall these factors may be defined as a result of several generations living in «the destroyed environment» under greater social and economic pressures.


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