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East: Expert Warns Of Pesticide Time Bomb

  • Ahto Lobjakas

A leading campaigner against pesticides has warned that stocks of so-called "obsolete pesticides" stored in thousands of locations in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe and Central Asia represent a ticking ecological time bomb. On a visit to Brussels, John Vijgen said official awareness of the problem both in Eastern and Western Europe remains low. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas spoke with Vijgen and filed this report.

Brussels, 4 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The coordinator of the International HCH and Pesticides Association says that half a century or more of intensive farming has left most countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia with a legacy of serious pollution that threatens their populations with a myriad of health problems.

During a visit last week to the European Union in Brussels, John Vijgen said that stocks of what he calls "obsolete pesticides" in the former Soviet bloc nations could easily precipitate an ecological catastrophe comparable to the cyanide spill in Romania last year.

Vijgen actively campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers posed by pesticides. In an interview with our Brussels correspondent, he said storage facilities for the pesticides are deteriorating and that the safe disposal of unwanted pesticides remains too costly for most transition countries. He says that means the risks of leaks and spills are high. Because most pesticides are highly toxic, their ingestion can lead to cancer and other serious diseases both in wildlife and human beings.

Vijgen says no one knows exactly how much pesticide is stored in the former communist bloc. Most estimates put total pesticide stocks in the world at between 500,000 and a million tons, with at least half of the amount being stored in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

He says the former East Germany alone holds several hundred thousand tons of obsolete pesticides, while in most countries further east, the situation is scarcely any better:

"You have [it] in nearly every country in Central and Eastern Europe. In Poland we know that there is at least 60,000 tons -- only in Poland, in thousands of locations. That is one part. We have now a production location [in Macedonia] -- we talked with the government [about it] -- which [contains] about 35,000 to 38,000 tons of HCH (that is, DDT) residue. In Romania, we expect several tens of thousands of tons. In Ukraine, there are 15,000 tons. In Russia there are 17,000 to 20,000 tons. In Uzbekistan, there [are] 10,000 tons. This is just what we know, but not in detail."

Large-scale pollution of soil and water has already taken place in eastern Germany, Romania, Ukraine, and most Central Asian countries.

According to Vijgen, the only East European country so far to resolve the problem is the Czech Republic. There, the largest part of obsolete pesticides was destroyed in the early 1990s, and the remaining stocks have been inventoried and are adequately monitored.

Slovenia is also close to eradicating the problem.

In most other Eastern countries, little has been done to counter the threat. Vijgen says the apathy of East European and Central Asian governments is due partly to a fear of being made a scapegoat for the excesses of the previous regime. In European Union candidate countries, governments also appear reluctant to risk slowing down enlargement negotiations by admitting to additional problems.

Vijgen says a major factor preventing the safe destruction of pesticide stocks is the cost of the procedure:

"You must reckon [that] if you do it [destroy the pesticides] with present technologies -- which is [first and foremost] incineration -- it's about $3,000 to $5,000 per ton. So it's enormously expensive. If you multiply that by, say, 500,000, then of course you come into [billions]. So, of course, one is very reluctant to touch this item."

Vijgen says the EU recently financed a pilot scheme in Poland using a small incinerating unit, but that approach ran into considerable opposition among the local population. Apart from a general prejudice toward incineration, Vijgen says, the Polish public also objected to the fact that one by-product caused by the incineration of pesticides is dioxin, a cancer-causing substance.

But Vijgen says his contacts with the European Commission last week have left him hopeful. Commission officials indicated that the EU is prepared to commit resources to the cataloging and re-storage of still usable pesticides, and to aid the ecologically safe destruction of obsolete pesticides in the ex-communist bloc.

He also says he has secured a commitment from members of the European Parliament to raise the issue when the parliament discusses the European Commission's annual progress reports on candidate countries.

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