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Sunday, 2 September, 2001, 19:34 GMT 20:34 UK
Rocket fuel and Russia's yellow babies
Falling rockets cause ecological damage
It costs $1,000 to collect one tonne of debris
The inhabitants of Russia's Altay Republic north of Kazakhstan are sounding the alarm over damage caused by toxic rocket fuel that has been raining down on the region for decades.

Both successful and unsuccessful rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in neighbouring Kazakhstan create a problem for the people of Altay Republic.

As rocket fragments fall back to Earth toxic fuel billows out over tens of kilometres. The soil where the fragments fall becomes contaminated with the extremely toxic substance - heptyl.

Specialists, local people and the Russian media are now linking the environmental damage this causes to an increase in illness, including cancer, and to other phenomena ranging from jaundiced new-born babies to mutant rodents not seen before.

Awful headaches

Shepherds started noticing the grass turning yellow, and, by the way, many of these shepherds are no longer alive

Viktor Pakhomov
"People suddenly began noticing that two or three days after the launches they would develop awful headaches, pressure drops, temperature jumps, joint pains and dryness in the mouth," Viktor Pakhomov, a rural administration head, told the Segodnya newspaper.

"Shepherds started noticing the grass turning yellow, and, by the way, many of these shepherds are no longer alive," he said.

A rise in the mortality rate and a high incidence of cancer have been put down to pollution by rocket fuel. The phenomena cited by local residents and doctors have also been observed in regions of Russia where intercontinental ballistic missiles and silos are blown up and where missile engines run on heptyl fuel are tested, the Trud daily reported.

The Russia TV channel estimates that almost a third of Altay Republic is littered with fragments of booster rocket stages. It says there are several hundred tonnes of space debris in the area, according to preliminary figures.

Good scrap metal

Increasing interest means more launches
Toxic fuel bellows from rockets
Despite warnings, local peasants go out to look for the rocket fragments, and even the fuel tanks, and drag them in from the taiga in the hope of selling them as scrap or of using them as building material.

Sickness has led people to desert villages, according to farmer Vasiliy Khmelev. There used to be 37 households in his village, Svetlaya Zarya, now there are seven.

Yellow babies

Women in Altay have started giving birth to babies which turn yellow as soon as breast feeding begins, Mariya Cherkasova, the director of a centre for independent ecological research told NTV: "Only a blood transfusion can save them. I know places, regions in Russia, where blood transfusions among newborns are the norm," she said.

Yuriy Ten, chief paediatric surgeon of Altay Republic, says

has caused an increase in premature births - from between 30 and 35% 15 years ago to 73% today. And many women are giving birth in their sixth month of pregnancy, he said.

New rodents

Many women are giving birth in their sixth month of pregnancy

Yuriy Ten
For the past two years there has been no extermination of rodents because they have left of their own accord, the Segodnya daily reported last December. "But something strange has happened - unusual animals very resistant to various poisons have appeared. They are biological entities for which names have yet to be invented," the paper said, describing them as having jaws like rats, but not looking quite like rats.

Secrecy

Russia's NTV recently failed to get answers about the situation from the Defence Ministry and the Russian Space Agency, "the only ones involved in the ecological monitoring of space launches", it said. But the television decided to carry out its own investigation.

"Other countries launch their rockets above oceans and that is where the rocket stages drop. In those countries it is a must to inform all those at sea where the rocket stages are expected to fall, but Russian citizens have no such privilege, as a rule," a correspondent for the television said.

A local official in Altay said they are warned about commercial launches from Baikonur two days in advance, but that launches "in the interests of national security were a strict secret".

Third appeal to the president

Outstanding beauty
Altay's natural beauty suffers
By last December the residents of Tretyakovskiy District, among the worst hit in Altay Republic, had appealed three times to the president to look into the causes of the increasing mortality rate among people and animals, but had little response, the Segodnya daily reported at the time.

"Those who have an interest in the launches from Baikonur will never give us the truth about the real scale of the threat the launches pose," it quoted the deputy governor of Altay Republic as saying.

There is now much more commercial interest in satellite launches, the paper reported. At the beginning of the 90s there were on average four a year from Baikonur, now there are on average four a month.

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.

See also:

23 Apr 01 | Science/Nature
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
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