Mystery Toxic Appears in Armenian Food Chain

By Arpine Galstian

YEREVAN, Armenia, March 28, 2007 (ENS) - Armenian doctors and scientists are sounding the alarm after discovering traces of toxic substances in patients, including the mothers of young children. Yet despite the potential health implications for the Armenian public, no one can identify the sources of the problem with any certainty.

In tests, doctors have found evidence of chlorides which could lead to serious medical problems.

One strong suggestion is that the chemicals have found their way into the food chain from pesticides used in farming.

"Chlorine compounds are present not just in the soil and in water, they are also detected in a human biology – in sweat, saliva and mother’s milk," said Albert Hairepetian, director of Armenia’s Institute of Environmental Hygiene and Prophylactic Toxicology. "This is just unacceptable."

Organochlorines such as the notorious pesticide DDT were used in Armenia until they were banned across the Soviet Union in 1972.

The poisoning could have come from a residue of DDT still left in the ground, but some experts suspect the banned chemical is still being used illegally by farmers.

DDT

A worker with an obsolete pesticide eradication program funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs finds bags of DDT on an Armenian farm. (Photo courtesy Milieukontakt)
"We carried out research to find out whether the presence of these toxic substances in humans was due to the use of DDT in Soviet times," said Lilik Simonian, an expert with the organization Armenian Women for Health and a Healthy Environment. "We established that there are fresh traces of DDT as well as old ones."

Hairepetian and his colleagues studied milk samples from 40 mothers in maternity wards in Yerevan and the town of Ashtarak, and concluded that the toxic substances are being passed on to newborn babies.

This information was not shared with those tested. "It’s pointless to subject people to unnecessary stress, because at the moment there’s nothing we can change," said Hairepetian.

Simonian’s group came to similar conclusions when it carried out a parallel study in 2004 in 10 villages in the Ararat region south west of Yerevan.

Farms in the Ararat valley, which supply markets in the capital Yerevan, are seen as the main source of these toxic pesticides.

At one Yerevan food market, 37 year old Nora said she heard on the television recently that food grown in the Ararat valley may be unhealthy. "Now I ask where vegetables come from before I buy them," she said.

But market trader Gayane said her sales have not suffered from the alarming media reports.

"Sometimes the customers ask where the vegetables come from, but later on it all gets forgotten," said Gayane, adding that as she is not buying her produce direct from the farmers she doesn’t know what it contains.

Of 15 shoppers interviewed at the market, only one of them knew about the toxic issue.

"We breathe such poisonous air that a little bit more poison or a little less won’t make a lot of difference," said 55 year old Vardges.

grocery

A grocery store in the Armenian capital Yerevan. (Photo courtesy Geir Engene)
Experts say that the toxic substances involved will be discharged from the body naturally, but that they do some damage to the nervous and immune systems along the way.

"There is practically nothing doctors can do about this," said Nune Bakunts of the Anti-Epidemiological Institute for Hygiene, run by Armenia’s Health Ministry. "It’s the job of those who own the land.

"We have to ban the use of toxic chemicals containing chlorine. They have been labelled as 'persistent' as they are present in the environment for a long time, and now they have entered the human organism."

The Ministry of Agriculture insists that banned pesticides – however cheap and effective they may be – are not on sale in Armenia.

"These [included] the acaricide group which have a sulphur or nitrogen base," said Garnik Petrosian, head of the ministry’s plant cultivation department. "You see we do not use trichlorfon, methyl parathion, DNOC or DDT, which are considered dangerous."

Petrosian said that pesticides are sold only after they had been approved by a special licensing commission.

His words were echoed by Environment Minister Vardan Aivazian, who said, "We carry out checks, we question the customs authorities and we consistently get the same answer – these substances are not imported into the country."

However, Elizabet Danielian of the World Health Organization’s Yerevan office suggested that regulation of imports is lax. "Research done by various nongovernmental organizations shows that there is no record of all the toxic chemicals imported into the country and that we don’t know what substances they actually contain," she said.

The environment minister believes the toxic traces may come from Soviet-era accumulations of pesticides in the soil, but he said it was also possible that villagers still have stores of old chemicals left over and may be using them.

Experts from Armenian Women for Health and a Healthy Environment say they have evidence that this is the case. They say chicken farmers are using DDT, so toxic substances make their way from the soil into the eggs.

As an alternative to agriculture as the source of the problem, Aivazian pointed the finger at two industrial plants as possible suspects – the Nairit chloroprene rubber factory and the gold extraction plant in the town of Ararat, which uses cyanide as part of the process. He also suggested a further possible cause - a toxic waste dump in the village of Nurabashen outside Yerevan.

The Nairit plant was closed in late Soviet times but has since reopened. The head of its environmental department said that the factory is running at low capacity and there is no evidence it is causing any damage.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR. Arpine Galstian is the pseudonym of an Armenian journalist. IWPR’s Armenia editor Seda Muradian contributed to this report.}