Trapped In One Of The
Most Polluted Places On Earth

KARABASH, Russia (AFP) - For the past five years Sergei Perelygin and his wife Olga have dreamed of quitting their two-roomed cottage sited in one of the most polluted places on the planet.
They live just 300 metres (yards) from the Karabashmed copper smelter, which has poisoned the town for decades. It employs both of them, Sergei, 38, as an electrician and Olga, 35, as a laboratory worker, and it is no doubt killing them too.
In the ground where they live lead levels exceed maximum permitted levels by 150 to 350 times. In the town as a whole, concentrations of lead, arsenic, nickel, cobalt, cadmium, copper and zinc are between two and 150 times the norm.
The couple are perfectly aware of the dangers, but claim they cannot leave because they have to provide for their two daughters, who are still at school.
"We are being poisoned, but we have enough to eat. We have no choice," Olga said.
"At least we are paid on time," added Sergei, a rare thing in a country where wages and pensions are frequently months in arrears, though his pay only amounts to 1,200 rubles (50 dollars) a month.
They cannot afford anywhere better than their cottage, little more than a hovel, which Olga inherited from her father, also a worker at Karabashmed.
There is no running water and no heating apart from an old coal stove which in winter can not raise the temperature above ten degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit).
The only ornaments on the pallid walls are a wooden crucifix and a faded photograph of their elder daughter Natasha, who suffers from diabetes.
Outside a small vegetable garden has been planted with courgettes (zucchini) and potatoes, to supplement a diet largely comprising pasta and sausage.
But this year the pollution turned the potato leaves yellow and no tubers grew. "We can't afford the potatoes from the market, which cost 12 rubles (50 cents) a kilo (2.2 pounds)," Sergei said.
Bread at 6.5 rubles a loaf is also too expensive, so Olga bakes her own.
"We rarely open the windows," she said. The chimneys of the smelter belch hundreds of tonnes of sulphur daily into the air.
Karabash, in the Ural region northwest of Chelyabinsk, was given its unenviable ranking among the world's polluters after a visit by experts from the United Nations Environment Programme.
The authorities promptly closed the smelter, which hardly helped the workers.
"Some residents went to look for work elsewhere, others stayed and became alcoholic," said Valentina Vlassova, who has lived at Karabash for 20 years.
"I went fishing, and sold my catch on the market to feed my family," Sergei recalled.
The plant was bought by an influential industrialist from the nearby city of Kyshtym, and by February 1998 it was back in production, providing jobs once more but raising new health fears.
The new management promised to install equipment to clean the air by next January, but so far nothing has happened. Meanwhile cases of pneumonia and bronchitis have shot up, blood disorders have doubled and skin diseases are half as many again.
Even more worrying, the death rate from cancer went from 25.8 per 10,000 in 1997 to 39.1 last year.