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Kazakhstan: Study Contends Baikonur Launches Are Poisoning Children, Environment

Prague, 12 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian researchers say rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan are causing serious illnesses among people who live nearby. Russia's Rosaviakosmos space agency, the U.S. space agency NASA, and the European Space Agency (ESA) all launch rockets from the base. The unpublished study contends that unburned remnants of toxic fuels regularly spray over inhabited parts of Kazakhstan's Altai area. It says this is resulting in increased levels and severity of sickness among the area's children.

The science journal "Nature" reports in tomorrow's edition that its writer has seen the Baikonur study, whose findings have not been made public previously.

The weekly magazine says the most detailed part of the study was led by epidemiologist Sergei Zykov of Vector, the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk. Zykov concentrated on the children of Altai.

His team examined the 1998 to 2000 health records of about 1,000 children. It concluded that -- compared to the regional average -- children in the worst-affected area were twice as likely to contract endocrine and blood disorders. Their levels of other diseases also were markedly higher.

As the British-based "Nature" reports, officials at Baikonur categorically deny any such problems.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service spoke with Erkin Shaymaghambetov, chief of the Department of Objects Control and Exploitation at the Kazakh State Aviation and Space Committee, which is based at Baikonur.

"Representatives of the Environment Protection Ministry work here at the Cosmodrome. They provide control of the [environmental] situation. Here, we live ourselves in this city, and we do not feel any impact of the launches. Scientists have proven that the influence of the space activities on ecology is minimal," Shaymaghambetov said.

A spokesman for the Baikonur complex told "Nature" that the health of the local population is continually monitored and that no problems have been identified.

The Baikonur space complex in central Kazakhstan has been a public policy issue since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Technically, it reverted to Kazakh ownership. But Russia, which built the complex, has been reluctant to pay the agreed annual rent of $55 million. The amount is being paid in different ways, such as infrastructure repair in the Baikonur region and free studies for Kazakh officers in Russian military schools.

Environmental groups have raised questions about the impact of Baikonur's operations. But these groups have not looked at the issue with the same focus as the Vector studies.

Mels Eleusizov is chief of the Almaty-based Tabighat, a Kazakh environmental group.

"Do you know the volume of oxygen destroyed by every launched rocket? Proton rockets are still being launched. They use hepthil, which is a very toxic fuel. One gram of hepthil contaminates 2 cubic kilometers of air. That is why we can say that the ecological situation in the Baikonur area is drastic," Eleusizov said.

"Nature" notes that other major launch sites, such as NASA's Cape Canaveral in Florida, send rockets out over the sea.

In 1999, Kazakhstan temporarily banned operations in Baikonur after two of Russia's Proton space rockets exploded over central Kazakhstan, showering the local environment with toxic fuel.

Almost the entire population of Baikonur City works at the space complex. Russia gave all of the workers the opportunity to become Russian citizens. The effect was that Baikonur City became a sort of Russian enclave in the center of Kazakhstan.

"Nature" is a peer-reviewed journal. That means that scientists in the same fields as the authors examine all of the magazine's articles. The Vector study and Zykov's finding have not been reviewed by any other researchers, so the magazine published the findings in what its editors termed a "newsfeature."

An accompanying editorial explains. It says: "The first detailed epidemiological study of people living under the flight path suggests that the rocket fuel is indeed causing health problems. The study has not been peer reviewed, but it is funded by a respected organization. At the very least, it should serve as a warning flag to any agency that uses the base."

NASA and ESA rockets often launch from Baikonur. But both the European and U.S. space agencies disclaim any responsibility for possible human or environmental problems. An ESA spokesman told "Nature" that the agency buys a service from Baikonur and is not responsible for what occurs as a result.

The "Nature" editorial argues otherwise. It says the two agencies should fund a broad study and publish the results as soon as possible.

The magazine warns that various interests have potential motivations for disguising the truth. Launches from Baikonur generate important income for the Russian space program. And researchers sometimes are tempted to exaggerate data in their efforts to win grants for additional research.