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Uzbekistan: Soviet Pesticides Leave Bitter Legacy

Farmland still contaminated with DDT from past decades, experts say.
Experts say agricultural land in northwest Uzbekistan is so permeated with pesticides from past decades that it still presents health risks for the farmers who work it.

The soil in Khorezm region and the adjacent autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan is still full of chlorine and other chemicals from the DDT used in cotton production in the Soviet period.

So intensive was the use of pesticides from the 1940s to the end of the 1960s that the Khorezm and Karakalpakstan had 78 aerodromes used by cropspraying planes.

By the early 1970s, DDT was banned as a general agricultural insecticide in the Soviet Union and the United States, and was outlawed by European states over the next few years. Some reports suggest the pesticide continued to be used in parts of the Soviet Union such as Central Asia.

DDT can remain in the soil for years without breaking down, and given the large volumes used in Soviet Uzbekistan, it continues to contaminate farmland.

A scientist in Khorezm says he has data showing that soil contamination by chlorine-based pesticides is 30 times the permissible level.

In the mid-Nineties, government environmental scientists in the newly independent Uzbekistan conducted surveys which led to action to clean up the most polluted areas – chemicals were removed from cropsprayer airstrips and chemical storage facilities all over Uzbekistan, and placed in underground concrete bunkers.

However, no action was taken to decontaminate the farmland, such as taking fields out of use while the topsoil was removed.

In 1998, land in Uzbekistan was parcelled out to newly-created private farms under a leasehold arrangement rather than outright ownership. The old aerodromes were turned into farmland as well.

A journalist in northwest Uzbekistan, who asked not to be named, said the land distribution process was not accompanied by an assessment of soil condition.

As a result, he said, “Farmers were mostly ignorant of the state the land was in and they spread the contaminated topsoil far and wide as they levelled their fields.”

Although cotton continues to be grown on a massive scale as the country’s prime export earner, these days private farmers use some of their land to grown fruit and vegetables, either to eat or to sell at local markets.

The presence of DDT presents a dual risk – chemicals in the soil may affect farm workers directly, and can also make their way into the produce on sale at the market, scientists say.

“I get a reaction – my arms often itch and I get headaches,” said a farmer in the Khiva district of Khorezm. “I don’t spend too much time in the fields.”

A mother in the nearby Urgench district said her school-age daughter and the teachers often told her of cases where pupils showed signs of unexplained allergies or headaches in the classroom.

“They send the children home immediately,” she said. “The school doctors say it isn’t good to live near the fields; it’s dangerous.”

Scientists say pesticides containing chlorine increase the risk of allergies, digestive tract ailments and premature births.

A doctor in Nukus, the local capital in Karakalpakstan, said he had noted a rise in the incidence of illness among people living close to contaminated fields or consuming fruit and vegetables produced on such land.

“We’ve got a serious risk here and there’s a whole range of associated illnesses,” he said. “These include anaemia, digestive tract and stomach ailments, hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and immune system and endocrinal complaints.”

A scientist at the Al-Khwarezmi university in Urgench said traces of chlorine based pesticides had shown up in samples of mothers milk.

In 2006, two local non-government groups, Women for Stable Development and the Save the Aral Sea and Amu Darya Alliance, published a report highlighting concerns about an underground spring 40 kilometres outside Nukus from which people were drawing water.

The spring was located on a former aerodrome used by cropsprayers, and an environmentalist involved in the survey said chemicals were seeping into the water source.

The old airstrips were supposed to have been cleaned up, but volunteer with a non-government group in Nukus said when the wind was blowing from that direction, the nearby village of Qypchoq was hit by “the acrid smell of chemicals”.

“People choke, and many children end up in hospital,” he added.

Despite warnings from doctors and activists, the community here, in what is a particularly arid part of Uzbekistan, continues to take water from the spring to drink and cook with.

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their security.)

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