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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sick Residents Blame Building for Their Ills

Maria Vinogradova and dozens of her neighbors -- young and old, some cancer patients, some disabled by asthma, some covered with eczema blemishes or with deep circles under their eyes -- gathered Wednesday in front of what they say is the source of their common pain: their nondescript nine-story apartment building in northeast Moscow.

"These are gas chambers," Vinogradova, 67, said, waving toward her home, a typical Soviet-style, gray building made from concrete panels. She and most of her neighbors moved into the building at 3/2 Ulitsa Nikolaya Khimushina in 1973, right after it was built.

For years, the neighbors and independent experts say, the building's panels have been exuding two carcinogenic gases -- phenol and formaldehyde, chemical substances that were added to the panels to improve their insulation by making the concrete less porous.

But officials say more studies are needed to determine the source of the high concentration of the toxic chemicals. Some experts say poorly made furniture and plastics could be the source of the phenol and formaldehyde.

Phenol, often used in resins and plywood, is usually solid and has a strong sweet smell. It has been shown to cause skin and eye irritations and changes in the blood, liver, kidneys, and cardiovascular and central nervous systems.

Formaldehyde, a colorless gas, was once widely used in insulation. In 1982 it was banned by the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission. Formaldehyde exposure can lead to lung and nose cancer, pregnancy disorders, ulcers, bronchitis, allergies and skin problems.

According to tests by the city health inspection service and by independent experts from 1996 to 1998, phenol levels in Vinogradova's building are eight times to 9.6 times higher than what is considered safe. Formaldehyde levels are three times to four times higher.

In her fight to draw attention to the problem in the 144-apartment building, Vinogradova drew up a list of 21 neighbors who died before the age of 60 from cancer, 24 people suffering from cancer and 17 people who have eczema. But no official studies have been done on the link between health problems and the building's construction materials.

"We were able to get a vague conclusion that children from this building have more health problems," said Valentina Prisyazhnyuk, a deputy representing the district in the City Duma. "But when we requested data on adults, the doctors stonewalled us."

In Moscow, the problem with what came to be known as "phenol homes" surfaced in 1991 when residents of a 22-story building in Peredelkino started suffering from headaches, rashes and allergies. City health inspectors detected high phenol and formaldehyde levels in the building and it caused a public outcry.

The problem was traced to the insulating tar used to fill cracks and seams between concrete panels. A city-run construction company mixed the tar improperly and then workers dripped it all over floors and walls. Normally, the tar would get a special coating.

The problem was solved by stripping the wallpaper, lifting linoleum and cleaning the tar.

Since then, Eco Chernobyl, a nonprofit research group, has checked 892 Moscow apartments, and found high concentrations in nearly one third of them, said Vladlen Malyshev, the director of the organization.

But in the building on Ulitsa Khimushina, the gases ooze from the walls themselves, according to Malyshev and scientists from the Moscow Research Institute for Standard and Experimental Construction.

Five years ago, the institute studied the suspect panels. Although production of the panels was later stopped, more far-reaching results of the study were swept under the rug, said Margarita Nekrasova, the head of its research lab.

"The entire problem with phenol homes is politically charged," Nekrasova said. "We were proposing environmentally clean insulators, we could prove the risks and we could have solved the problem, but we were shamelessly pushed away. Our research team was left without funds and we had to change the research subject."

It is not clear how many Moscow buildings were built using the toxic concrete panels. Nekrasova, who said she had the information, warily refused to divulge the numbers.

"No one is interested in raising the issue of old homes. Municipalities simply don't have the money to deal with it," said Viktor Kamynin of the Kedr independent environmental research center, who has tested apartments.

Back on Ulitsa Khimushina, Galina Lazareva, 55, keeps all the windows in her first-floor apartment open. Despite the draft, the dark low-ceilinged rooms are filled with a dusty, sweetish smell.

"I came back from vacation a week ago and my skin was all clean. But after a couple of days back at home, my eczema is back," she said, pointing to wide blotches stretching along her arms and face.Prisyazhnyuk, the City Duma deputy, said she convinced the head doctor at the city health inspection service, Nikolai Filatov, to agree to a full-fledged study of the building.

"When we have all the data we will go to court," she said. "I dream of an extremely public, showcase court case. Otherwise, there is no way to force the bureaucrats to turn to the people."