What goes up…

 作者:关茑薷     |      日期:2019-02-26 09:12:00
By Michael Day THE DOCTORS knew that something had gone terribly wrong. The unborn baby’s nose was joined to its lips and its liver was five times the normal size. Its heart was also defective. At 22 weeks into her pregnancy, the mother decided to have an abortion. The doctors set about investigating why her fetus was so dreadfully deformed—but the mother already had little doubt. She lives in Anisimovo, a village in the north of the Altai Republic in Siberia, and during the early stages of her pregnancy in late 1993 the Russian army was blowing up redundant missiles in the nearby forest. Many people in the area were falling sick at that time. The destruction had begun in 1989 as the Russian army complied with the Soviet-American START disarmament treaty. The warheads had been removed earlier, but the missiles still contained a deadly chemical: dimethyl hydrazine or “heptyl”, a highly toxic rocket fuel. As they exploded, clouds of heptyl and its equally dangerous combustion products were spread across the surrounding countryside. Although the missiles have now all been destroyed, the danger is not over for the people of Altai. 1250 kilometres away, across the border in Kazakhstan, lies the Baikonur Cosmodrome—still controlled by Russia—from where Proton rockets loaded with communications satellites are launched. After a rocket launch, 10 per cent of the fuel—heptyl—remains unburnt and falls back to Earth when the rocket casts off its second stage. This happens when it is 100 kilometres high and has started to flatten its trajectory in preparation for launching its satellites, and the unburnt fuel and discarded parts are scattered over Altai. With its rich pine forests, steppes and high peaks, the Altai Republic is Siberia’s Switzerland. Its southern tip, which borders China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, is a national park and one of the most biodiverse regions in Asia. But if you walk through the wooded hillsides you are more likely to see twisted chunks of metal from the Baikonur rockets than the tracks of snow leopards. Decades of nuclear and chemical pollution have turned many parts of Altai into a toxic disaster area. Children are regularly born with jaundice, their livers having succumbed in the womb to a barrage of poisons, leaving their skin a lurid shade of yellow. In some villages, aid workers and environmentalists claim, more than half the children are born with jaundice. Often, this illness is accompanied by serious and irreversible neurological diseases. Alan Johnston, a space scientist at University College London, says: “We can’t say for sure that the yellow children are being made ill by the rocket fuel, but I think we can say there is a serious health problem there. We know that [heptyl] is extremely dangerous.” He estimates that more than 1400 tonnes of rocket parts and probably as much fuel have been dumped on Altai over the years. Johnston has advised researchers at the University of Omsk, 1000 kilometres to the northwest of Altai, on the design of less polluting rockets that burn all their fuel. But the Russians are years away from using such rockets, he says. Persistent poison The Medical Toxicology Unit at Guy’s Hospital in London lists hydrazine compounds as notorious liver and central nervous system poisons and therefore likely candidates for the source of Altai’s jaundice and neurological problems. The dangers may be longer lasting than anyone had thought. At an international conference in Minsk, Belarus, in 1993, chemists said that the risks from heptyl had been underestimated. The chemical could last for years in deep rivers and marshes where oxygen levels are low, they warned. Scientists admit it is difficult to prove that rocket fuel is to blame for the epidemic of child jaundice in Altai. In such a polluted part of the world, it would be unwise to discount the noxious effects of chemical plants in the northwest of Siberia and the notorious nuclear testing programme in Kazakhstan in the 1940s. But the fact that large numbers of yellow babies emerged just after the beginning of the START detonations programme is hard to ignore. And significantly, the areas with the heaviest nuclear contamination do not have the highest incidences of yellow babies. Circumstantial evidence, at least, does exist. A report by the Institute of Biophysics at Russia’s Ministry of Health recorded that in one quarter of the Altai region, heptyl can be detected in soil and plants. In areas where rocket parts have fallen, concentrations of the chemical in soil and plants reach 0.3 milligrams per kilogram—worryingly high for such a toxic substance. The people of Altai fear that the launch programme at Baikonur will expand over the next five years. Business at Baikonur is booming. American communications companies are queuing up to use the reliable and competitively priced Proton launchers operated by International Launch Services, a joint venture between the Russian state company Khrunichev and the American company Lockheed Martin. Alan Wells, director of the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester, says the base is likely to prosper while “there’s more hardware waiting to be put into space than there are launch facilities to put it there”. Moscow is keen to encourage customers: Khrunichev is paid an estimated $70 million to $80 million for each of the dozen or so Protons launched at Baikonur every year. “From the treasury’s point of view that’s very useful revenue,” says Wells. The problems of discarded fuel are not confined to Russia. They are being mirrored across the border in China, which has an ambitious satellite launch programme—based in its western Xinjiang province —that relies on heptyl to power its rockets. As in Altai, rocket parts containing unburnt fuel fall over populated areas, and the inhabitants are in no position to complain about it. Not everyone is convinced that fuel from the Proton rockets is making people ill. Stephane Chenard, senior researcher at Euroconsult, a Paris-based aeronautics consultancy, suggests that Russia’s regions claim pollution is affecting local people’s health in order to win extra cash from Moscow. Johnston, however, argues the opposite: he says many people in the Altai Republic fear that local authorities are playing down environmental problems to please central government and protect the funding they receive from Moscow. Polluter should pay Some regional authorities are no longer willing to keep quiet, however. Svetlana Yegorova, a representative of the Ministry of Nature Protection in the neighbouring region of Sakha, says the time has come for companies that pollute the environment to start paying to clean it up. Yegorova says that rocket parts containing heptyl also fall on Sakha. Her region also has yellow babies, and rates of serious child illnesses that are five times Russia’s national average. “Firms like Lockheed Martin that profit from the area should fund research into the effects of rocket fuel,” she says. A spokesman for Lockheed Martin says the company is looking into the problem. “We are concerned. But we need to investigate this to see what’s causing this problem and if bits of our rockets are falling in the area.” He points out that so far Lockheed has been involved with only three launches from Baikonur. The lack of a proper investigation into the link between rocket fuel and yellow children is exasperating health workers and environmentalists. Mikhail Shishin, a prominent environmental campaigner in Altai, told New Scientist he knows of several villages where virtually all the children are born with jaundice. Such cases warrant immediate large-scale controlled studies, he says. But there is no money available, and a dearth of trained scientists. Until this changes,