Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mercury Rising

BALAGANSK, Eastern Siberia -- Crowded into a tiny hallway of Balagansk's rural hospital, a gloomy group of parents hugged their children as they waited nervously to see the doctor. Before the start of the school year the regional medical authorities had made a special trip from Irkutsk to this small village on the Angara River. Since 1992, 73 - or every fortieth child - has been diagnosed as disabled.

"Most of them are mentally disabled," whispers Yelena Ishina, Balagansk's only pediatrician. "And it is scary."

By Ishina's desk, three doctors watched Olya, a little girl with huge eyes and disproportionally long legs, draw dots on a piece of paper. At four, Olya speaks an incomprehensible "language of her own" and has to struggle to get up if she is laid on her back. "Olya, please draw a flower," the doctor repeats, as Olya's mother looked on with trembling lips. But the girl pays no attention - totally consumed by her task of drawing zig-zags and ragged circles.

Ishina suspects that Olya's delayed development - and the town's other disabilities - are linked to a legacy of mercury poisoning. For 27 years these villagers living downriver from a giant chemical plant were subject to high doses of mercury.

For decades, two Eastern Siberian factories dumped hundreds of tons of mercury - a poisonous liquid metal that causes birth defects, mental disabilities and damages the nervous system - into the waters of the Angara River. Tons of mercury evaporated and seeped into the ground, forming mercury deposits that contaminated the groundwater and poisoned the population.

Russian researchers only recently started investigating the scope of the environmental disaster and the health toll it has taken. More studies are needed to link the high rate of illness to the mercury poisoning. But with scarce funds and minimal government support, they face an uphill battle. One of the sources of the pollution - the chemical plant Usolkhimprom - has already shut down its mercury-based operations, but the extent of the damage and who should pay for its clean-up its still unclear.

One thing is clear. Scientists can already see the shadow of Minamata - the Japanese town synonymous with industrial pollution - hovering over Eastern Siberia.


Residents of Minamata, a Japanese fishing village 660 miles southwest of Tokyo, experienced firsthand the horrors of mass mercury poisoning.

For more than three decades - starting in 1932 - Chisso Co., Ltd., a fertilizer company, dumped mercury into the Minamata Bay. After coming into contact with water and the sea's natural bacteria, the liquid metal was transformed into methylmercury, an especially dangerous form of mercury capable of passing through many more membranes of the body than metal mercury. This compound then contaminated fish and moved up the food chain to poison local residents, causing blurred vision, hearing problems, damage to the nervous system, brain lesions and birth defects.

Over the course of 36 years, 1,043 patients with mercury poisoning died, and dozens of women gave birth to atrociously deformed babies. The plight of those suffering from what became known as "Minamata disease" was immortalized by W. Eugene Smith's 1971 photograph of a mother cradling her deformed child.

* * *

The mercury scandal in Siberia's Irkutsk region first surfaced in 1996 - when high levels of the poisonous metal were detected in fish supplied to Balagansk's fish processing factory. Since 1996 was the first year local authorities mandated that all food products be certified, no one knows how long the processing plant had been freezing, smoking, drying and then selling the contaminated fish.

But they do know that Usolkhimprom, a major chemical plant upstream from Balagansk, used more than 1,600 tons of the liquid metal between 1972 and last year.

Usolkhimprom was not the only source of contamination in the river. Sayanskhimprom, another chemical giant located 200 kilometers west of Usolye on another tributary of the Angara, has used 2,010 tons of mercury over the past 19 years. But so far, no health studies focusing on Sayansk have been done.

According to the data compiled by the plants and Irkutsk's Institute of Geochemistry research team, over nearly three decades the two plants spilled about 1,250 tons of mercury into the environment. An estimated 86 tons were dumped into the river, while the riverbed claimed at least 64 tons - most of which accumulated along the Balagansk stretch of the Angara.

According to a report issued this year by the Angarsk-based Institute for Health in the Workplace and Human Ecology, for many years the government paid no attention to mercury pollution because the Russian climate was considered to be too cold to allow the chemical reactions that would lead to contaminating humans.

But in 1997, researchers from the health institute started looking into the medical effects of mercury contamination in Balagansk and the nearby village of Konovalovo, where many residents rely on fish for food. More then 80 percent of the residents studied had abnormally high levels of mercury in their urine, and the concentration of mercury in childrens' hair was 8.7 times higher than normal.

Researchers also conducted tests on cow and breast milk, finding mercury in all of the samples. Along with fish, cow and breast milk were targeted as the three main sources of mercury contamination.

Poverty and alcohol are contributing to the population's deteriorating health, but researchers suspect the mercury poisoning is largely responsible for the startling symptoms in Balagansk, where residents have experiencedmemory loss and suffered damage to their immune system.

* * *

Nadezhda Zhukova, a Balagansk native and elementary school teacher, says the studies opened her eyes. When in 1993 she returned to Balagansk after a decade in the Far North, she was shell-shocked. "I was appalled at the level of the kids' intellect: They were incredibly slow. They couldn't remember a thing," says Zhukova. "Of course, some parents drink. But they drink in the North as well."

Zhukova sent six out of a class of 22 students to a medical disability review board, which confirmed that all six children had serious learning disabilities. The number of children in special education classes grew rapidly, Zhukova says, and an old kindergarten was turned into a home for mentally retarded children.

Only in 1996, when officials from Irkutsk launched a program to trace the effects of the poisoning, did she understand. "They tested children for mercury, and the results were dismal," Zhukova says. "Our babies turn into halfwits in their mothers' wombs. It takes just a tiny bit of mercury."

After studies were launched in Balagansk and Konovalovo, researchers recommended that residents stop fishing and drink only boiled water. But a fishing ban is not a solution. "Of course you can forbid fishing, but what is there to eat?" Zhukova says. "In many places people get their salary in grain. Often you walk into a home and there is a bowl of boiled ground wheat and three of four kids around it... people are dirt poor."

* * *

Surprisingly, once the issue of mercury poisoning was made public, it did not cause a great uproar among the local community.

"Women are not worried. They are not asking about mercury," says Marina Vinevskaya, Balagansk's only gynecologist. "For the first two years after the news surfaced, they seemed concerned. But then... well, you still need to have children."

Vinevskaya says that many children she delivers are born with encephalopathy, a brain disease that could be caused by prenatal mercury poisoning. Also, an escalating number of expectant mothers have to be hospitalized due to the threat of miscarriage.

"The only way to get yourself some peace of mind is to move away," says Alla Ustyogova, the 28-year-old chief of the district hospital. "But how do you know that it will be any better somewhere else?"


This is the price that people are paying for living downstream from the city of Usolye, where Usolkhimprom, the giant chemical plant, used mercury to produce an extra-clean caustic, which is used in pulp production, and to make paint, plastics and pharmaceuticals. It also produced chemicals crucial for Russia's defense industry.

Usolkhimprom was built in 1936 to convert salt from nearby deposits into valuable chemicals, and rusting pipes still carry salt solutions pumped from underground. Local veterans joke that when all the underground salt is washed out, Usolye will fall through.

Until a few years ago, Usolye - a name based on the Russian word for salt - was a closed town. It was, and still is, a company town. The giant chemical combine dominating the cityscape with its smokestacks is the town's single largest employer.

After 1972, when the plant first started using mercury, Usolkhimprom relied on two means to produce caustic. The first method - producing over 100,000 tons of the chemical a year - used the plant's mercury-based electrolysis baths, which split salt into chlorine and caustic. The second, known as the membrane method, is less dangerous, but creates a chemical that is less pure.

Aware of the potential dangers of mercury poisoning, the Communist Party Central Committee passed a decree in the early 1980s banning the use of mercury in new plants. But although the local health department had detected high levels of mercury in the water and air of Angarsk, no one rushed to pull the plug in Usolye.

It was only after the contaminated fish was discovered downstream from the plant that environmental authorities started their campaign to stop the use of mer cury. In 1998, the regional administration and Usolkhimprom signed an agreement calling for the plant to shut down its mercury baths and switch to the safer membrane method by the end of 1999. But, complaining of a lack of funds, the plant tried to push back the deadline.

Hoping to earn additional money from exporting its caustic, the plant wanted to stay open until 2001. But when the governor of Irkutsk forced the plant to shut down its mercury baths last year, Usolkhimprom had no choice but to rely on its so-called membrane method. This method may be safer, but it does not produce enough chlorine - a key component the plant uses to make other chemicals. Now the management is forced to use limited funds to buy it.

"I call it an act of economic sabotage," says Leonid Ivanov, 55, the first deputy director of Usolkhimprom and a 37-year veteran of the plant, who fought tooth and nail to postpone the mercury ban. It took several direct orders from the governor, a law suit and a criminal investigation to force Ivanov to give in. "We lost between 25 and 30 percent of our production capacity."

"This mercury hysteria is the handiwork of our competitors. This city does not have an out-of -hand ecological disaster," says Yevgeny Kustos, the mayor of Usolye, who sides with the plant's management. Kustos, who sits on the board of Usolkhimprom, has a personal as well as a professional interest in the plant. The chemical giant used to contribute 75 percent of the city's municipal budget. Now, with the mercury cutbacks, the plant's share has dropped to about half. The mercury ban is also likely to lead to greater unemployment, which in the city of 104,000 is already up to 20,000.

Kustos boils the mercury poisoning dilemma down to one question: "What is better for the people, to die from starvation or to suffer from some sort of mysterious disease for which a cure might be found in 20 years?"

But the effects of mercury poisoning on future generations is a hefty price to pay, the region's few environmentalists say.

"In Russia, for some reason we think that a destitute country has no business worrying about the environment. The general sentiment is 'We will get rich and then...,'" says Yury Udodov, former head of the Irkutsk regional committee for environmental protection. "This is absurd and moronic. We underestimate ecological problems and keep on robbing future generations."

Back in 1997, Udodov lobbied the Irkutsk governor to close down the mercury lines. But the governor - facing intense pressure from the plant's management - held off on signing the order.

A year later, Udodov saw another opportunity to halt the use of mercury - but this one came at a price. "An official in the governor's office told me directly: 'The price of this decision will be your resignation,'" says Udodov, who had just turned 60. "They were quietly squeezing me out."

Udodov launched his attack in the summer of 1998 when his committee filed a lawsuit demanding the immediate closure of Usolye's mercury lines. To everyone's surprise, the Irkutsk arbitration court took just 10 days to side with the environmentalists. In the fall, two days after the last mercury baths were shut down at Usolkhimprom, Udodov resigned.


Faced with the gigantic task of dismantling the 96 mercury baths and cleaning up mercury-soaked rust and mud, the plant's administration is still bitter about the environmentalists' victory.

"We were telling them how dangerous it was to shut down the entire process at once," says Kustos, adding that an estimated 30 tons of mercury was spilled or evaporated in the cleanup process. "Now they are scooping this mercury with buckets."

But Udodov calls Kustos' argument ludicrous. "Don't make me laugh. What difference does one extra ton make when there are already 100 tons out there? And what would have changed if we were to wait until 2001?" he says, adding somberly. "This is the price we have to pay. This line should have been cut 10 years ago."

According to a geological study commissioned by the Irkutsk regional ecological fund, at least 345 tons of the liquid metal have accumulated underneath Usolye's mercury shop. And Pavel Koval, in charge of the Geochemistry Institute's research team dealing with mercury contamination, says this mercury is migrating underground towards the Angara. And eventually to Balagansk.

* * *

There are few places to work in Balagansk - a village of about 4,700 - and even fewer companies that pay. There is a dilapidated cheese factory currently lying dormant because no one delivers milk anymore, a tractor maintenance service and a truck company that mainly makes money by leasing its cars to haul timber. Timber seems to be the only source of cash.

The Balagansk fish plant once employed as many as a third of the village's working residents. But since 1996, when high levels of mercury were detected in the local fish, the plant has been unable to receive health certificates for its products. Now this collection of industrial-size freezers and fish-smoking and drying shops once capable of processing up to six tons of fish a day lists only 25 workers on its payroll. A succession of its directors sold all but one of its power boats.

But the latest director, Vladimir Peshkov, hopes to restore life back to the plant. Wading through weeds and spare tractor parts scattered over the company grounds, Peshkov talks about creating a new line of fish products for animal feed. "Our only hope is to churn up fish," Peshkov says. "What else can help us?"

Last winter, he held talks with an animal feed company in Usolye that was eyeing the uncertified fish for chicken feed. A mink farm near Irkutsk is also ready to buy the fish. "But we just don't catch fish regularly," Peshkov complains, adding that it is a struggle to find money for fuel and to pay off their 8,000-ruble electricity debt.

Peshkov's remaining six fishermen rarely drop their nets into the Angara. When they do, it's to sell their catch to clients who pay cash and don't ask about certificates. Since November, the crew has sold about 16 tons of fish to out-of-town buyers. "It's the locals who know. But the out-of-towners, they just want the fish," Peshkov says.

But even the locals keep fishing, says Valery Yemelyanov, a local official. "For some, it's the only food they can get," Yemelyanov says, picking on the fried fish his wife cooked for supper. "Besides, it's a habit. How do you teach people who live on the river to stop fishing?"

In between rare fishing trips, the fishermen drink low-grade alcohol and shoot pigeons they euphemistically call "the meat." Luckily, the fishermen don't need to go far to hunt their prey: Large flocks of pigeons now nest in abandoned fish-smoking shops right off the rusting barge they use as a pier.

* * *

Usolkhimprom manager Ivanov and chief engineer Nikolai Gaidukov blame the health problems of the fishermen living downstream on their drinking - not mercury poisoning. But even though they deny Usolye has created an environmental catastrophe, both struggle with the effects of mercury poisoning.

Ivanov and Gaidukov suffered mercury poisoning as employees and had to transfer out of Usolkhimprom's mercury shop. Ivanov said he realized that something was wrong with him after he, a strong, bulky man, started feeling weak all the time. For many years, he went to health resorts to undergo treatment. Gaidukov has to constantly fight a strong tick and stuttering, another manifestation of the poison's effect on the central nervous system.

Indeed, Ivanov and Gaidukov are not alone. Hundreds of workers had to be transferred out of the mercury shop to a safer job, and Usolkhimprom now pays some 250,000 rubles a month to its 260 disabled workers, almost all of whom suffer from chronic mercury poisoning. While none of the factory workers have died from it, eachyear at least five new employees have to retire due to chronic poisoning, says Nikolai Balykin, chief physician at the factory's medical center.

Balykin, whose research on the effects of complex mercury-chlorine poisoning was classified in Soviet times, says he first detected high levels of mercury among Usolye residents decades ago. "I tried to suggest additional studies, but those in power were not interested," he says. "Neither is the current administration."

One might expect the sheer number of disabled residents in Usolye and downriver to stir up enough anger to spark a grassroots movement to fight pollution. Some officials in Balagansk may want to declare the region an environmental disaster zone, but the few environmental activists find that the locals are against them more than they are with them.

Take Konovalovo, a small farming village 20 kilometers away from Balagansk. The locals wish no one had ever dug up the mercury story. They are still angry at the scientists who publicized research revealing the village's high instance of psychiatric and health problems. "They came. We gave them a nice comfortable house. And what did they do? They call us morons," says Tatyana Berezhnykh, Konovalovo's former mayor.

At first, Berezhnykh says, she considered declaring the region an environmental disaster zone. But she soon let it go. "We cannot rely on outside help. Such problems exist all over the country."

Surrounded on three sides by water, Konovalovo runs one of the few successful collective farms in the area. The farm, OAO Zarya, sells milk, meat and grain. And Konovalovo residents understand all too well that waiting for federal relief programs and the money to which residents of an environmental disaster zone are entitled could take ages. But fueling the fires of the mercury scandal could scare off their buyers and sever any means they have of making a living in just one day.The fears of those living in Konovalovo are not unfounded. "They already shut down the fish factory [in Balagansk] and see what happened? People lost their jobs and were kicked out on the street. There are no jobs here," Berezhnykh says. "God forbid we are suddenly declared an [environmental disaster] zone, it would be a disaster. No one will buy our milk or meat, and we will die - not from mercury, but from starvation."