A poisoned legacy

OUR PLANET 8.6 - Chemicals

A poisoned legacy


surveys the inheritance of chemical pollution
in Eastern Europe and the former USSR


Industrial development at any cost was the dominant dogma during the communist decades. Civil society did not exist as we know it today and industry belonged to the state. So major industrial lobbies within the state bureaucracy made decisions with little attention to the consequences for public health and the environment. The economy was highly militarized, and the enterprises of the military-industrial complex - very often extremely dangerous environmentally - operated without any control from the nature protection authorities.

The performance of every enterprise was mainly assessed by the quantity of goods it produced. Clean air, water, and a pristine environment were considered free goods, without value. So polluting them was acceptable.

Secrecy in practically all aspects of life was another characteristic feature of communism. Information on environmental pollution was classified, and could not be discussed openly - which explains why it was so bad for decades without major public concern. Only when it exceeded all tolerable limits, in the 1980s, did the first independent green movements start in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and the former Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, monitoring the environment was organized reasonably well - for example through the State Committee on Hydrometeorology and Control of the Environment in the former USSR. All major cities and water bodies were under permanent observation, as were major sources of pollution (excluding military installations), and findings were published in a series of annual classified reports, with only limited circulation (100 to 200 copies).

Diluting pollutants was often regarded as the major environmental management mechanism. So-called 'maximum permissible concentrations' (MPCs) were established for a very long list of pollutants, hundreds of them for water quality alone. Very often they were stricter than in the Western countries. But in reality only a few dozen compounds were regularly monitored. Technology did not permit wide-scale monitoring of many environmentally dangerous chemicals, especially VOCs, PAHs, dioxins and other compounds which have significant effects even at very low concentrations. There was some tracking of some of their emissions, calculated through knowledge of the production processes, but not of their concentrations in the environment.

Needless to say, concentrations of pollutants could very rarely be kept at 'maximum permissible' levels, especially as there was very little enforcement of regulations. It was easier (and cheaper) for enterprises to dilute them by building higher chimneys or dumping wastes in large rivers, lakes and seas, than to construct and operate expensive purification equipment. Industrial wastes, including toxic and even radioactive ones, very often accumulated (sometimes for decades) in primitive dumping sites near the factories themselves.

air pollution

Air pollution

Pollution above 'permissible' levels is quite common in most cities of the former USSR. By one authoritative estimate, between 1988 and 1992 more than 66 million people in Russia alone lived in cities where MPCs were violated. Pollution with PAH, originating from improper fuel combustion, is particularly serious: only benzo(a)pyrene is monitored on a regular basis.

Industrial decline has caused a substantial reduction in emissions of chemicals in many countries of Eastern Europe. But air quality has not improved that much in most cities. The main reasons are the very sharp growth of private cars (in Moscow, for example, the number has doubled in the last few years), and the poor quality of the domestically produced petrol they use. Enterprises also pay practically no attention to environmental protection measures in the current economic hardships. Their purification equipment is often obsolete and they often cannot afford to replace it.

The situation is gradually improving in would-be members of the European Union, such as Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. Foreign firms buying industries in these countries are obliged to follow environmental standards, and the quality of car fuels is adequate.


The production and use of pesticides in Eastern European countries increased from the 1960s and their use peaked in the second half of the 1980s. They became too expensive in practically all countries of the region with the onset of economic reforms and so, fortunately, their use is now gradually decreasing.

Nevertheless, pesticide concentrations in soils remain high in many places. A selective review of soils in the spring of 1994 by Russia's State Committee on Land Resources showed that about 9.4 per cent of samples were polluted with pesticides above safety levels. The situation in the Aral Sea basin is very serious: the Uzbek Ministry of Nature Protection reports that concentrations of pesticides in the area's surface fresh waters on average exceed safety norms more than five times over.

Socialist, collective agriculture required large, homogeneous fields which could be cultivated by large machines. Pesticides were mainly applied from the air, which often meant they were widely spread. Soil in the fields of Uzbekistan, for example, were quite commonly contaminated by DDT and other chlorine-containing pesticides at levels 100 to 300 times the MPC; the maximum, in the Termez region, was 4,800 times the MPC. Concentrations in soil at airfields used for agricultural planes exceeded the MPC level by 25,000 to 30,000 times. Recently these concentrations have been gradually decreasing.

Specialized places for storing and processing pesticides on collective farms were very rare: often they did not even have a primitive roof. In many countries old pesticides present a very serious problem. The Ukraine Ministry of Environmental Protection says there are about 10,700 tonnes of them on farms, while Russia has about 40,000 tonnes spread throughout the country - an amount roughly equal to the chemical weapons stored there. The Albanian State Committee on Environmental Protection reports about 2,000 tonnes in its country and there are thousands of tonnes in Azerbaidjan, the Central Asian Republics, Moldova and elsewhere. They are usually stored in very poor conditions: there are simply no facilities to transport or use them safely: and they often penetrate to groundwater, causing serious contamination.


The mountains of solid wastes, and lakes of liquid ones, near most heavy industry in Poland, the Czech Republic, the former German Democratic Republic, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Estonia and other countries are probably the most visible environmental legacy of the former system. Storing wastes in open ponds, or on the ground (with practically no protection against percolation), was common.

Ukraine's extremely difficult problems exemplify the situation for all the former Soviet Union. Its Ministry of Environmental Protection reports that about 4 billion tonnes of toxic wastes - containing high concentrations of mercury, cadmium, lead, copper, nickel, vanadium and other heavy metals - have already built up there, and they are often stored in absolutely inadequate conditions. In many places, especially in the east of the country, aquifers are already contaminated and inadequate for water supply.

The country produces about 100 million tonnes of toxic waste a year. Although the output of metallurgical and chemical industries was cut by about half between 1992 and 1994, their generation of toxic waste fell by only 25 to 30 per cent. As industry declined, the recycling of toxic wastes also fell: in 1994 it was only 41.3 per cent of its 1990 level.

The Azerbaidjan Government reports that 97 per cent of waste goes to dumping sites with practically no groundwater protection. Often toxic wastes are dumped at sites designed for domestic rubbish: there is practically no control. Meanwhile in Uzbekistan, its Government adds, more than 2 billion tonnes of wastes have accumulated at dumping sites (1.3 billion tonnes from the mining industry). These wastes often contain high concentrations of heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, nickel, zinc and copper amongst many others. Practically none of these sites are ecologically safe: leakages and the percolation of pollutants are observed everywhere.

The list could be endless, including all countries of the region. There is a very serious situation in many parts of Russia (Urals, the Moscow region, the Kola peninsula, Kuzbass, to name just a few), Kazakhstan and practically everywhere throughout Eastern Europe.


Pollution by oil and its products by the Soviet/Russian oil industry is a permanent disaster. The majority of pipelines were built in the 1970s and 1980s, in a great rush, in permafrost or acid peat soils in east Siberia, and they very frequently corrode and discharge oil. Only major incidents (like last year's disaster in the Komi Republic) attract international attention, but smaller leakages are very common. There are about 60,000 minor leaks from Russian pipelines every year, and the annual loss of oil and its products is estimated to be at least 3.5 per cent of total extraction. In east Siberia alone, the Security Council of the Russian Federation estimates, 3 to 10 million tonnes of crude oil leak each year. Arctic ecosystems have very little ability to purify themselves; so oil, heavy metals, radionuclides and other pollutants remain for decades if not centuries.

Oil pollution of the seas, especially in the Arctic, presents another extremely difficult situation. The Barents and Kara seas are very heavily polluted as a result of many violations of technical rules during extraction and transport. To take one example, 10 per cent of the bottom sediments of the Ob estuary, where sturgeons used to winter, are now made up of heavy fractions of oil. The situation is not much better in Azerbaidjan: bottom sediments in Baku Bay, its Government reports, are extremely polluted.

Chemical weapons

Appalling facts on the production and storage of chemical weapons in Russia (kept absolutely secret during Soviet times) have recently become known. Seven factories produced chemical weapons in five cities - Berezniki, Chapaevsk, Dzherzhinsk, Volgograd and Novocheboksarsk. The last four are on the banks of the Volga - Europe's largest river and the source of drinking water for millions of people. Production, testing and storage of chemical weapons were accompanied by numerous violations of safety rules. In 1990-1992 - before it signed the International Convention on Chemical Weapons - Russia announced that it had 40,000 tonnes of poisonous substances, including 32,000 tonnes of phosphorous-organic compounds.

The problem of how to destroy the weapons is still unresolved because public protests have blocked the use of a specially designed factory at Shikhany, near Saratov, also on the banks of the Volga. In the past, vast quantities were commonly dumped in the sea. Data collected by L. A. Fedorov, in his 1995 book Undeclared Chemical War in Russia: Politics against Ecology, shows that the dumping took place at hundreds of locations in the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Barents Sea, Kara Sea, White Sea, Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, and probably others too. He also produced some evidence that chemical weapons were buried in rivers and peat bogs throughout Russia.

Rocket fuel

The Soviet and Russian industries produce an extremely toxic substance - non-symmetric methylhydrazine - as a liquid rocket fuel. Like chemical weapons, this substance belongs to the first class of toxicity. During the course of a launch, unspent fuel enters the atmosphere with discarded sections of rocket. Given that there were thousands of launches in the former USSR and Russia, pollution of waste territories in the Archangelsk region, Gorny Altai and Yakutia is now a serious problem, according to Prof. Alexei Yablokov, head of the Interagency Committee on Ecological Security of Russia.

At present there are about 200,000 tonnes of rocket fuel in store at different facilities in Russia - five times the amount of chemical weapons. Production, storage, transportation and utilization of fuel may have serious ecological effects, as yet barely known to the public. For example, according to an unofficial source, the mysterious death of more than 2 million starfish and thousands of other species in the White Sea in 1990 is linked with an unsuccessful rocket launch from a submarine. The rocket was destroyed and fuel entered the sea with devastating ecological consequences. The official commission that investigated the case immediately after the incident said that the causes of the deaths were 'not known'.

Prof. Ruben Mnatsakanian is Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at the Central European University, Budapest.

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