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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chemical Arms Waste: Getting Under the Skin

The first of two parts VOLSK, Central Russia -- Sergei Kobzev has little doubt about what caused the ulcers on his one-year-old son's skin last autumn -- he blames obsolete chemical weapons dumped at a base seven kilometers away. "Where else could that filth come from?" Kobzev said. "We will all get poisoned here like roaches." Kobzev is not merely hysterical. The deputy head of the Volsk health office, Ivan Ivkin, said the ulcers affected many people's skin when exposed to rain or dew. Statistics he has collected show the rates of some diseases are up to six times higher among the 13,000 residents of Shikhany than among the 60,000 in Volsk, Ivkin said. "I cannot officially explain the meaning of the statistics," Ivkin said. "But try and guess why this could be happening, knowing what is stored in Shikhany." In 1962, plastic casks containing 3,200 tons of adamsite, an arsenic-based poison, were put in an open trench at the Shikhany military base and abandoned, said Colonel Alexander Stepanov, who was deputy chief of the base until April 15 this year. Since the early 1960s the base has been testing chemical weapons developed by a research institute next door, Stepanov said, adding that samples of the agents are stored there. Unlike six chemical weapons plants located along the Volga river and blamed for pollution, the complex was never used for the large-scale production of weapons, but it was here that the Soviet Union's newest and most potent weapons were tested. Stepanov said the adamsite at Shikhany was brought in from a different storage point and dumped at the base, perhaps because it was easier to hide at the closed location. Thirty years later the casks have rotted and chemicals are leaking into the trench, but there is no plan to remove or eliminate the toxic mess. All the military can do is monitor soils around the trench, Stepanov said. "Of course it gets washed down with the rain and probably reaches the river Bagaika," Stepanov said. "I know crawfish have disappeared from the river, and there used to be plenty." The Bagaika is the only source of drinking water for the village of Baranovka, where a recent health survey revealed a new form of gastritis that affects 85 percent of children. Yury Chernenkov, a senior children's doctor in the Saratov region, said the gastritis found in Baranovka, which lowers acidity in the stomach, develops as a lasting disease from the start, skipping the inflammatory stage which can normally be quickly cured. Chernenkov also said people who suffer from the illness do not feel the pain typical of other known forms of gastritis and, as a result, the disease was not detected until the survey in March. The institute next to the military base at Shikhany used to produce small quantities of poisons as samples for tests of protective equipment and clothing. But according to Stepanov, work there stopped three or four years ago and the military base now stores no chemical agents except irritants and incapacitants. Suspicions were raised, however, in early February when six soldiers standing guard outside the warehouse were hospitalized with breathing problems caused by an unidentified gas. Officials who publicized the fact also said a nearby dog had died by suffocation. According to Shikhany's public prosecutor, Vladimir Petrov, the investigators were still unable in April to determine the cause of the accident. The military have attributed the poisonous rains and worsening health conditions of the local population to the giant cement producer, Krasny Oktyabr, located in Volsk. But local newspapers have countered that hardly any pollution could have come from the cement factory, because it was forced to stop to stop production for most of last year due to lack of funds. Shikhany's head of administration, Nadezhda Saratovtseva, who has lived there for 17 years with her husband and daughter, said the fears expressed were typical for people living near any weapons storage facility. "I cannot tell people it is safe here because I do not have the qualifications to judge whether it is," Saratovtseva said. Stepanov, however, said he believed the area to be safe and that he has decided to continue living in Shikhany after serving there for 20 years, even though he has a flat in Moscow. Rim Balchenko, a senior researcher at one of the two institutes that used to be involved in the development of chemical weapons, said he believed fears among local residents and employees resulted from a general paranoia based on lack of information. "When we started burning waste a couple of years ago, people saw dark smoke coming out of our pipes and they began complaining about headaches," Balchenko said. "Then we started burning ordinary fuel instead, and people still complained," he said. "But when we told them about the experiment they calmed down and the headaches were gone." "I don't believe them," said Ivan Parfyonov, a pensioner in Volsk. "They have lied in the past for the sake of their career. How can I trust them now?"