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

Toxic Mystery in Armenia

Experts cannot trace the source of dangerous substances finding their way into the food chain
Armenian doctors and scientists are sounded the alarm after discovering traces of toxic substances in patients, including the mothers of young children. Yet despite the potential health implications for the Armenian public, no one can identify the sources of the problem with any certainty.

In tests, doctors have found evidence of chlorides which could lead to serious medical problems.

One strong suggestion is that the chemicals have found their way into the food chain from pesticides used in farming.

“Chlorine compounds are present not just in the soil and in water, they are also detected in a human biology – in sweat, saliva and mother’s milk,” said Albert Hairepetian, director of Armenia’s Institute of Environmental Hygiene and Prophylactic Toxicology. “This is just unacceptable.”

Organochlorines such as the notorious pesticide DDT were used in Armenia until they were banned across the Soviet Union in 1972.

The poisoning could have come from a residue of DDT still left in the ground, but some experts suspect the banned chemical is still being used illegally by farmers.

“We carried out research to find out whether the presence of these toxic substances in humans was due to the use of DDT in Soviet times,” said Lilik Simonian, an expert with the organisation Armenian Women for Health and a Healthy Environment. “We established that there are fresh traces of DDT as well as old ones.”

Hairepetian and his colleagues studied milk samples from 40 mothers in maternity wards in Yerevan and the town of Ashtarak, and concluded that the toxic substances were being passed on to newborn babies.

This information was not passed on to those tested. “It’s pointless to subject people to unnecessary stress, because at the moment there’s nothing we can change,” said Hairepetian.

Simonian’s group came to similar conclusions when it carried out a similar study in 2004 in ten villages in the Ararat region south-west of Yerevan.

Farms in the Ararat valley, which supply markets in the capital Yerevan, are being seen as the main source of these toxic pesticides.

At one Yerevan food market, 37-year-old Nora said she heard on the television recently that food grown in the Ararat valley may be unhealthy. “Now I ask where vegetables come from before I buy them,” she said.

But market trader Gayane said her sales had not suffered from the alarming media reports.

“Sometimes the customers ask where the vegetables come from, but later on it all gets forgotten,” said Gayane, adding that as she is not buying her produce direct from the farmers she doesn’t know what it contains.

IWPR spoke to 15 shoppers at the market and only one of them knew about the toxic issue.

“We breathe such poisonous air that a little bit more poison or a little less won’t make a lot of difference,” said 55-year-old Vardges.

Experts say that the toxic substances involved will be discharged from the body naturally, but that they do some damage to the nervous and immune systems along the way.

“There is practically nothing doctors can do about this,” said Nune Bakunts of the Anti-Epidemiological Institute for Hygiene, run by Armenia’s health ministry. “It’s the job of those who own the land.

“We have to ban the use of toxic chemicals containing chlorine. They have been labelled as ‘persistent’ as they are present in the environment for a long time, and now they have entered the human organism.”

The ministry of agriculture insists that banned pesticides – however cheap and effective they may be – are not on sale in Armenia.

“These [included] the acaricide group which have a sulphur or nitrogen base,” said Garnik Petrosian, head of the ministry’s plant cultivation department. “You see we do not use trichlorfon, methyl parathion, DNOC or DDT, which are considered dangerous.”

Petrosian said that pesticides were sold only after they had been approved by a special licensing commission.

His words were echoed by environment minister Vardan Aivazian, who said, “We carry out checks, we question the customs authorities and we consistently get the same answer – these substances are not imported into the country.”

However, Elizabet Danielian of the World Health Organisation’s Yerevan office suggested that regulation of imports was lax. “Research done by various non-governmental organisations shows that there is no record of all the toxic chemicals imported into the country and that we don’t know what substances they actually contain,” she said.

The environment minister believes the toxic traces may come from Soviet-era accumulations of pesticides in the soil, but he said it was also possible that villagers still have stores of old chemicals left over and may be using them.

Experts from Armenian Women for Health and a Healthy Environment say they have evidence that this is the case. They say chicken-farmers are using DDT, so toxic substances make their way from the soil into the eggs.

As an alternative to agriculture as the source of the problem, Aivazian pointed the finger at two industrial plants as possible suspects – the Nairit chloroprene rubber factory and the gold extraction plant in the town of Ararat, which uses cyanide as part of the process. He also suggested a further possible cause - a toxic waste dump in the village of Nurabashen outside Yerevan.

The Nairit plant was closed in late Soviet times but has since reopened. The head of its environmental department told IWPR that the factory was running at low capacity and there was no evidence it was causing any damage.

Arpine Galstian is the pseudonym of an Armenian journalist. IWPR’s Armenia editor Seda Muradian contributed to this report.