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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 00:21 GMT
'The most polluted town in Europe'
By David Shukman
BBC science correspondent, Copsa Mica, Romania

River in Copsa Mica
Levels of lead in the town far exceed permitted levels
First impressions leave a mark and mine were of an immediate assault on the senses.

Within minutes of arriving in Copsa Mica, a small industrial town deep in a valley in Transylvania, I could feel the pollution in my eyes and nose. I could even taste it - it was slightly sweet.

Ahead of me was a factory built in the late 1930s to process heavy metals, a giant smelting works that over the following decades belched out contaminants on a terrifying scale.

The factory's current owners, the Greek firm Mytilineos Holdings, has recently installed new filters to bring emissions into line with European standards. But there's a poisonous legacy.

Official statistics show life expectancy in the town is nine years shorter than the national average.

There are numerous studies that lay out the facts. An environmental organisation, EcoTur, carried out a survey in the area from 1999 to 2004 working alongside scientists from Britain.

The town is really a dangerous place to live
Prof Doru Banaduc
It found the soil contained so much lead that it was 92 times above the permitted level; the vegetation had a lead content 22 times above the permitted level.

One of the organisation's leading members, Prof Doru Banaduc, of the University of Sibiu, told me the whole food chain was contaminated.

"The town is really a dangerous place to live - everything you touch, everything you eat, the air you breathe is serious for your health."

Another study into children aged between two and 12 years old found heightened levels of lead and evidence of arrested development.

Last year alone, 80 workers from the factory were treated for lead poisoning. For years, hundreds of people have complained of bronchial problems.

No choice

Further evidence of a health impact came during an official investigation into the deaths of two horses.

What can we do? We cannot afford to do anything else
Berta Matefi
The national veterinary service found the hay fed to the horses had lead levels 10 times higher than the legal limit, and the horses themselves were carrying high levels of lead and other heavy metals.

There is a high risk that food grown locally is similarly toxic. In the marketplace, we found a trader highlighting the fact that his vegetables were grown a long way from Copsa Mica.

But for a town suffering from grinding poverty, many do not have the choice of paying for food that comes from outside the area.

I asked Berta Matefi if she was worried about feeding her own children with potatoes and fruit from their small holding.

"Yes I do," she said. "But what can we do? We cannot afford to do anything else."

'Legacy of distrust'

The factory, Sometra, is adamant that its emissions record is now improving.

A detailed environmental control programme has been agreed with the local authorities, part of a package of measures designed to bring Romanian industry in line with EU standards.

In August and September last year, the plant was closed while new filtering systems were fitted. Bela Balazs, Sometra's production director, told me that emissions were now within EU limits.

"We have results about heavy metal content in the emitted dust and every measurement is in the correct level," he explained.

He talked of there being a major difference between historic pollution and the factory's current emissions.

But when we asked to film the new filters, we were refused.

There is a legacy of distrust. While around 1,000 people are employed at the plant, there are many more living locally who are not.

Most conversations on the street quickly turned to the pollution and the threat to health.

There is talk of a clean-up: hundreds of new trees have been planted. But the toxins have penetrated at least one metre (three feet) into the soil.

Improvements will need to be measured over decades rather than years.

Map: Pollution hotspots
13 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature
Romania: Key facts and figures
30 Dec 06 |  Europe

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