Breathing Sulfur and Eating Lead
Magnitogorsk's children need oxygen cocktails
A faded red-and-white sign, tucked away in a drift of blackened snow near the entrance to the Lenin Steel Works in Magnitogorsk, still issues the old Soviet call to arms: "To you, our beloved motherland, we give our labor and our hearts." And our lungs as well, it might have added.
Encased in a perpetual cloud of red, white and purple gases spewing from two dozen smokestacks, the 60-year-old steel plant, located on the banks of the Ural River, is both life and death for this city of 440,000--an economic boon that provides jobs for 64,000 workers and an environmental disaster that saps the health of all for miles around. Magnitogorsk's children's hospital is crowded with bronchial asthma cases. Doctors say that two thirds of the diseases they treat are linked to respiratory problems.
The Lenin Steel Works, the world's largest, is a communist dream come true--and that is the problem. Only a Stalinist system that could both rouse and frighten the masses could have built such an industrial monster in the middle of the icy Russian wilderness, 670 miles east of Moscow.
Named for the "Magnetic Mountains," which are rich in iron ore, Magnitogorsk is the anchor of a huge industrial belt that was founded east of the Ural Mountains in the 1930s to help the Soviet military-industrial complex turn out tanks and rifles. In World War II, the equipment of 24 entire steel related factories was transported to the Magnitogorsk plant almost overnight from European Russia, ahead of advancing German troops. During the war, the Lenin Steel Works produced half of all the Soviet Union's tanks and 1 out of 3 of its artillery shells. Today, relying largely on the same 50-year-old equipment, the open hearths of the sprawling, 16-square-mile factory produces 20 percent of Russia's steel.
But with the demise of Soviet propaganda and its pretense of building a workers' paradise, some residents have begun to look beyond the ledger sheet. Each year, the Lenin steel mill belches out 650,000 tons of industrial wastes, including 68 toxic chemicals, and pollutes some 4,000 square miles of Russia, an area twice the size of Delaware.
Safety last. Steelworker Anatoly Konstantinov, who is also a deputy in the Magnitogorsk city council, says that in his sector of the plant, "not a single ecological safety provision is being carried out, not a single filtering device is working." During the winter, the central avenues of the city are lined with piles of soot-encrusted snow. The parks and sidewalks are a blur of gunmetal gray. At night, the taste of sulfur settles thickly on the tongue.
At Children's Hospital No. 3, the waiting list for treatment of respiratory problems is so long that only the most seriously ill are admitted. The hospital is adding a new rehabilitation center for respiratory patients, but it still won't be able to keep up with a caseload that has jumped from 270 patients a year a decade ago to more than 500. Fewer than 1 percent of the city's children are estimated to be in good health. Irina Cherednichenko, the director of the hospital's respiratory diseases department, says heavy pollution, exacerbated by poor diet, is the primary culprit. "The problem is that all mothers are unhealthy here and can't give birth to healthy babies," says Cherednichenko, who herself suffers from chronic bronchitis. "Even if the volume of wastebeing thrown into the air decreases, there will be unhealthy children here for years."