Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Poor Ignore Radiation Dangers

Efforts are underway to warn Mayluu-Su residents of the dangers of venturing near a long-abandoned uranium mine.
By Gulnura Toralieva

Residents of the southern Kyrgyz town of Mayluu-Suu are risking their lives daily because they are unaware of the extent of radioactivity seeping from its abandoned uranium mills.

Locals are taking little or no precautions to protect their families – prompting moves to educate people in the area about the danger on their doorsteps.

The publication of a booklet titled Live Safely in Mayluu-Suu is a joint initiative run by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, in Bishkek, the Scientific Engineering Centre GeoPribor and the Kyrgyzstan National Academy of Science.

It is designed to minimise disease rates and birth defects already common among residents, who are either unaware of the risks of entering the former mine area - or disregard them in order to make money.

Around four million tons of radioactive waste is contained in 23 dumps in the area – the legacy of mining operations carried out during the Soviet era from 1946 to 1967. When the operation finally closed down in 1973, little effort was made to clear away the contaminated materials, and the area remains dangerous.

Japar Kojoakmatov, who grazes his cattle on radioactive ground, told IWPR, “Frankly speaking, I have no idea what [the consequences might be], but I really don’t care. I have to feed my family and this place is convenient for me.

“Besides, we live in a danger zone where at any moment a landslide could come down and wash the dump away, and our house along with it. I am used to not thinking about what may happen, as I have no other home, nor the money to buy one.”

Children appear to have the same lackadaisical attitude as their parents, much to the alarm of outside observers. “It’s terrifying to see children play in lead and zinc dust at the dumps, throwing it up in the air, breathing it. All this might become a personal tragedy for them in the future,” said Yuri Aleshin of GeoPribor.

Exposure to high levels of radiation gradually leads to health problems – the nervous system and bone marrow are particularly vulnerable.

“The harmful consequences of radiation show themselves only many years later,” said Aleshin, adding that as well as cancer and leukaemia, it can cause genetic damage to future generations.

Oncological testing conducted by Mayluu-Suu doctors showed that during 1990-2000, disease rates grew by 20 per cent per 100,000 residents, while the annual number of deaths increased by 40 per cent.

The number of birth abnormalities recorded have increased four-fold and are continuing to rise, according to Nigmat Mambetov, the area’s chief sanitary inspector. “It is well known that we have higher rates of cancer here than in other districts,” he told IWPR.

“However, we still cannot tell for sure whether it is because of the specific environmental situation in our town, as we don’t have the means to conduct research. But our doctors believe that, in any case, the [radioactivity] has had a negative impact.”

Even those who have some idea of the dangers posed by the disused mine are choosing to ignore them in order to provide for their families - as poverty in rural Kyrgyzstan have left many with few opportunities to make money.

GeoPribor staff told IWPR that locals had been growing corn on the contaminated land as well as using it to graze cattle, with serious implications for the food chain.

The poor and the unemployed are common visitors to the site - removing fences and warning signs to get at industrial equipment and building materials, to be sold to scrap metal traders and used in construction respectively.

“I have no other way of making money. They have warned me about the danger once, but so far so good – I’m alive and kicking,” unemployed Sergei told IWPR, laughing.

Akylbek Kerimbekov - head of the production department of joint stock company Azat, which has been doing emergency and repair work at the dump for a decade - told IWPR that such practices could spread radioactive contamination.

“If the dumps are not disturbed, they can do no harm,” said Kerimbekov. “But people not only don’t know about the danger - they don’t want to know.

“They are risking their own health, but they are also putting the three million people who live in the Fergana Valley in danger.”

Gulnura Toralieva is a journalism student at the Kyrgyz Slavonic University.