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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 November, 2003, 20:25 GMT
Babies in Siberian space scare
Rocket debris in Altai
Some locals make use of the rocket parts' metal
Toxic fuel dropped on parts of Siberia during space launches may be poisoning unborn children, Russian TV reports.

The Altai region lies beneath the flight paths of the Russian space agency's sites at Plesetsk in northern Russia and Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Booster rockets from both sites drop their lower-stage fuel tanks virtually over the same places, the TV says.

The agency itself does not acknowledge any link between the fuel and the phenomenon of "yellow babies".

The women... had yellow babies who had their yellow period for about a month, six weeks or two months
Lev Panin

It does, however, pay compensation for the falling debris to the regional authorities.

Heptyl, as the unspent liquid rocket fuel is known, produces an excess of a substance known as bilirubin in the blood, a scientist told Russia's NTV Mir channel.

The best-known instance of the effect of heptyl on Altai villagers happened 14 years ago when a whole generation of jaundiced, or "yellow", babies were born, said Lev Panin, who heads the Siberian biochemical institute of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.

"It was frightening, because the content of bilirubin was considerably above the norm," he told the TV channel.

"The women who gave birth in 1989... had yellow babies who had their yellow period for about a month, six weeks or two months."

Ground rent

Vasily Manyshev, head of Altai's Environmental Service, confirmed there were three impact zones on the region's territory where detachable parts of booster rockets fall.

But the rocket parts themselves are not the problem, he explained, since the impact zones are high in the mountains where there is little chance of anyone being hit.

While the space agency does not acknowledge any connection between the "yellow babies" case and heptyl, it does pay the Altai authorities a rental of one dollar per square kilometre for the drop zones where debris lands.

Mr Manyshev says this is all he gets to finance preventive measures against possible contamination.

The regional government, the TV report says, believes this is not enough and has asked the space agency to change its rockets' take-off trajectory.

So far there has been no response, the TV says.

Novelty value

However, the neighbouring region of Khakassia has offered the agency the use of its territory instead because it is interested in even the current level of payment as extra income.

Farmer Mikhail Smirnov
The space debris holds no fears for some
In Altai itself, many local residents were surprised to learn from the television crew that the fuel tanks might be posing any danger.

They routinely use the space parts for their own needs, building toilets, house roofs and even sledges for their children from them.

And in a region where summer tourism is often the only source of income, locals frequently take tourists to see the debris.

Many locals regard the rocket parts as entertainment, the TV says, an attitude reflected in a story told by farmer Mikhail Smirnov.

"Last time I took tourists there, a piece of debris the size of half a spacecraft was half stuck in the ground," he said.

"I told them after they took their pictures: you'll go bald and lose your virility."

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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