Canaries in the Mines: Children in the Former Soviet Union
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"When I see Luisa's nose bleeding, I know it's the gas again," says Rumiya Dzenbulatova of her four-year-old daughter. "She's the first to be affected. Then I smell it. It's like bad eggs. We all feel sick; the kids get dizzy."
Rumiya knows that it is time to get out the gas masks, one for each of the five members of her family. They live in Seitovka in southern Russia where the Astrakhan sulfur plant, one of the world's largest, periodically releases sulfur dioxide and highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gases.
Maria Cherkasova, a Rusian environmental researcher, notes that stories like Rumiya's are by no means rare. "Children are the canaries in the mines," she observes, referring to 19th century mining practices to monitor the quality of underground air-when canaries brought down into the mines became sick and stopped singing, it was an early warning sign that the air had become dangerous for miners as well. "The increasing health problems of children are giving us more and more signals about the dire state of the environment," she notes. "But the problem is, we no longer have fresh air to come out into."
Cherkasova, is director of the Moscow-based Center for Independent Ecological Programs (CIEP), a research branch of the Socio-Ecological Union which acts as an umbrella group for over 250 independent social justice and environmental organizations in the former U.S.S.R. With a Ph.D. in biology, Cherkasova worked for many years in the Soviet government's Institute for Nature Protection within the "Department of the Red Book," compiling lists of endangered species of animals and plants. "At the close of the '80s," she recalls, "I realized that children were fast becoming one of the most seriously endangered species in our country. I am afraid that our environmental situation is endangering the lives of a whole generation. I would call this 'genocide by means of ecocide.'"
In 1988, Cherkasova helped to found the Socio-Ecological Union, which aims to promote and facilitate communications among environmental and human rights groups, both within the former U.S.S.R. and internationally. The Center for Independent Ecological Programs (CIEP) gathers professional ecologists and other ecologically-oriented scientists concerned with conducting research on environmentally-related health problems, particularly among children. The Center also develops concrete programs and projects to help residents in regions of ecological disasters; and promotes environmental education and democratic participation in environmental decision-making throughout the former U.S.S.R.
While over 20 percent of the vast territory of the former U.S.S.R. is classified as "ecologically dangerous," there are now 45 areas-mainly the lower Volga and the south Urals-classified as "ecological disasters." In these areas problems are so severe ad complex that they are regarded as impossible to reverse and fully repair. The Soviet tendency to cluster mining operations, chemical agriculture, industrial production, and military production has left a bewildering variety of toxic chemicals and radioactive materials in certain regions. CIEP aims to piece together at least some of the complicated story of environmental-health links in the most contaminated regions, with special attention to the effects on the most vulnerable population-infants and children.
When I first visited Cherkasova in 1994, I was surprised to find her and a three-person staff working out of a small, two-room apartment. "You would be amazed to see how far we stretch our limited resources and what we are able to do in the face of very big obstacles," she said. "Sometimes we coordinate the work of up to 100 scientists, with a great deal of volunteer and low-wage participation."
Cherkasova recounts some of the difficulties of trying to document links between environmental deterioration and health problems in the former USSR. Until the late 1980s, the Soviet government refused to acknowledge any problem. Data were often classified as confidential, deliberately falsified or conveniently lost. Today scientists are faced with the difficulties of environmental and health monitoring-obsolescent equipment; a deteriorating health care system which fails to collect reliable health data; and a lack of scientific knowledge about the complex synergistic effects of the combinations of radioactive and chemical contaminants that afflict many seriously polluted areas.
CIEP has sounded an alarm about falling birthrates throughout the former USSR. In Russia today, deaths now exceed births by 700,000 per year. Cherkasova notes, "This might be considered positive if it were a result of purposeful activities. Many parents choose not to have children because of financial problems-but that is not the only reason. There are regions in Russia where women cannot have children no matter how strong their wish to become mothers." According to the 1991 government document "On the Health Condition of the Population of the Russian Federation," 75 percent of pregnant women are "at special risk" because of serious health problems. In Archangelsk, a city of more than one million inhabitants, CIEP had great difficulty finding ten healthy women with healthy children to act as a control group for a study on environmental-related health problems in the area.
Cherkasova notes that the infant mortality rate in Russia increased by 14 percent from 1990 to 1993. Of those who come to term, more and more infants are born with abnormalities-missing arms or legs, deformed heads, Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy. In the industrial center of Magnitogorsk, for example, the incidence of birth defects has doubled since 1980. Room in institutions for seriously handicapped children is at a premium, at the same time that cracks in the social service system mean that these children cannot get the specialized care they require.
Alexey Yablokov, one of Yeltsin's top advisors in the area of ecology and public health, said in 1993 that only 23 percent of Russian children under the age of seven could be regarded as "practically healthy." He noted that the incidence of nervous disorders, allergies and illnesses of the intestinal tract among children had doubled between the early 1970s and the 1990s. Cherkasova adds that only 20 percent of draft-age men in Russia today are deemed fit for military service according to international medical specifications. Such figures are, of course, problematic and open to debate. But they do indicate a sense of crisis among researchers and at least some policy-makers. This sense of crisis, is increasingly evident among "ordinary people" as well. CIEP regularly receives letters, such as this one from a mother in the city of Dserzhinsk, the capital of the chemical industry located near the Volga River:
"The city's air pollution is very alarming. The city is full of lung diseases. My son is suffering from chronic bronchitis and asthma. Bad water pollution affects teeth and kidneys. My daughter has been ill since early childhood and her teeth are black. Children get sick, lose hair, some die, and some are already poisoned inside their mothers before birth."
It was such anecdotal material about large numbers of "yellow babies"-children with serious liver disorders-that led CIEP to conduct studies linking this disorder to the presence of highly toxic rocket fuel in the environment. The phenomenon of "yellow babies" is most widespread in the areas of military test sites, near places where rockets have been destroyed, or close to areas of rocket fuel production. Mothers are exposed to the toxins by eating local produce, and their infants are exposed through their mothers' milk.
Cherkasova identifies radioactive contamination as the most serious environmental problem facing the former U.S.S.R., now and for centuries to come. She stresses that the tragic consequences for children of Chernobyl fallout are not simply limited to dramatic increases in the incidence of childhood thyroid cancers, although this effect has received the most international attention. CIEP has also documented other thyroid abnormalities, impaired immune system functioning, frequent nosebleeds, respiratory infections, recurrent pains in legs and joints, and memory and concentration disorders among children in the fallout region. But, she emphasizes, "we have Chernobyl everywhere. The former U.S.S.R. conducted 714 nuclear tests, 131 of them on Novaya Zemlya and 26 in the densely populated Volga region. Add to this the problem of nuclear power plants where leaks and accidents happen regularly, plus dumps of radioactive materials with so few safeguards that the location of some of them has simply been forgotten."
Cherkasova criticizes official state responses to what she regards as a grave national crisis. "Nobody wants to be responsible for ecologically-related illnesses," she observes. "The Ministry of Ecology considers them to be medical matters, while the Ministry of Health defines them as ecological issues." CIEP researchers therefore aim to make scientifically credible links between environmental and health problems and to capture the international attention that will force government officials in their own countries to respond.
"We don't see our work as just documenting horrors," says Cherkasova. "And we cannot limit our work only to scientific research. When you face people's suffering, you need to take immediate practical measures as well."
Part of CIEP's work is organizing assistance to families with handicapped children in ecological disaster areas. Cherkasova explains, "Such families usually live in poverty-fathers may abandon the families because they are not able to endure the burden. Mothers cannot leave their invalid children and must quit their jobs." CIEP has organized home textile production for single women with disabled children.
CIEP has also helped to establish an association of over 500 families with handicapped children in the Dserzhinsk area, aimed at mutual support and a collective struggle for rights to social services, a quality environment, and democratic representation. Cherkasova notes that similar associations are being formed in many other areas of the former U.S.S.R.
The most ambitious CIEP project to date has been the creation of the Suzdal Children's Center in historic Suzdal Land. This rehabilitation center in Russia's first "natural and cultural park" was planned and organized with local residents and supporters from Moscow State University. "What we want for our children," asserts Cherkasova, "is the chance to develop healthy bodies and minds, in a quality environment with a rich cultural heritage." For Cherkasova, the present crisis is first and foremost a crisis in cultural values. "We must learn that it simply makes no sense to put short-term economic considerations before considerations of environment, community, and health."
The Norwegian Center for Child Research and CIEP are co-sponsoring an international workshop in June 1996 on children's participation in community-based environmental activism. The significant involvement of women in grassroots environmentalism has been well-documented, both internationally and in the former U.S.S.R., but evidence suggests that children are a growing force for activism.
A striking example is children's involvement in environmental activism in the Bryansk region of southwestern Russia, an area suffering both from Chernobyl fallout and toxic industrial chemicals. Neither well-informed local authorities nor concerned factory workers addressed the problems. Many found it difficult to challenge polluting industries they depended on for employment. Moreover, the weight of knowledge about extensive radioactive and chemical pollution in their communities-and the former USSR more generally-resulted in a kind of "psychic numbing," making people unwilling or unable to acknowledge dangers, either to themselves or their families. As a last resort, the environmental group turned to children, some as young as ten years old, who became involved in monitoring local pollution-drawing up maps of the effects of acid rain and measuring levels of chemical and radioactive contamination. After identifying "hotspots" in places they often played, children were able to mobilize some parents and teachers to make formal protests to local authorities and factory officials, leading to the clean-up of radioactive sands on a school playground and the installment of safety equipment at a local factory to stop mercury run-off into community water supplies.
Admittedly, these are small actions within a very seriously contaminated area. But children's engagement helped to break through the "psychic numbing," The Bryansk community has become more openly concerned about environmental problems and more willing to consider clean-up and health rehabilitation programs that do not have immediate economic payoffs.
Cherkasova emphasizes, "It is from such small changes that we can begin to change the mindset of a nation. In my country, we have been concerned about producing the biggest of everything-the biggest steel mills, the biggest dams. Now we have the biggest ecological crisis on the face of the earth. It is time to focus on children, on the many ways we can improve their conditions now and help them to become responsible and concerned adults who can carry out the work we leave undone."
Sharon Stevens is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Social Work. She is also Senior Research Assistant at the Norwegian Center for Child Research.