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Environment : For Children of Poland, a Legacy of Pain, Pollution : In a corner of the country, more is tainted than just air and water. Youngsters are paying the price of industry with their health.

October 30, 1990|CHARLES T. POWERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KATOWICE, Poland — The province of Katowice is 2,568 square miles, slightly smaller than the state of Delaware and about two-thirds the size of Los Angeles County. It represents just 2% of the land area of Poland, but it contains 11% of the country's population--4 million people who live amid what must surely be one of the wonders, or horrors, of the modern world.

Here, in an area that could be traversed in under an hour if a good highway existed, are 69 coal mines, three lead and zinc mines, 20 steel mills, eight coking plants, four lead and zinc processing mills, 15 coal-fired power plants, and 18 other metallurgical plants processing wire, coins, pipe, brass, tin and aluminum. There are three crude oil refineries, three glass factories and six chemical plants manufacturing carbides, pesticides and paints.

Altogether, more than 5,000 industrial concerns operate in the province, 238 of them producing, by estimated weight, 40% of all the air pollution in the country.

It's the worst part of the heavily polluted region known as Silesia. The area's rivers are dead. In some areas, a square yard of soil contains enough lead to fabricate a toy soldier. The annual fallout of dust is estimated at 762 tons per square kilometer, 13 times higher than the national average. In addition to lead and cadmium, the industries of the province release into the atmosphere a stew of organic chemical compounds whose effects on human beings scientists fear, but can only partially measure.

The population of this area lives tucked between the mines and mills, one town scarcely recognizable from the next, along snaking roads choked with heavy truck traffic. No one here hangs washing outdoors. The houses and playgrounds are gray with the dust. Home, for these people, is a nightmare landscape of smokestacks and cooling towers, slag heaps and mesas of coal tailings, of subsiding earth and pits filled with a chemical broth masquerading as water. About one-fourth of the area's population is under the age of 20. It is these children who are now inheriting the earth of Katowice province. It is a frightful legacy.

The town of Bytom, late on a chill afternoon. A circle of four-story Germanic-style a partment buildings, and a sort of playground-common set among them. Two women speak together, a dozen children play nearby. The women speak of how often they must wash the apartment windows. From the center of the yard, looking in one direction, coal smoke can be seen pouring from the chimney of the power plant. In the opposite direction, the stacks of the "huta," (steel mill, in Polish) also pour forth. The plants, like bookends, stand at either end of the apartment block.

The daughter of one of the women runs up. She is 5 years old, blonde, with a face as delicate as bone china. She is covered with a fine black dust, like graphite. It is all over her face, and her hands are black with it. The women shrug. It's the "sandpile," one indicates. That's the way it is here, says the other.

Dr. Roza Osuch-Jaczewska, heads the infant-care clinic at Silesia Academy of Medicine in Katowice, the city from which the province takes its name. She has been assigned by the local Health Ministry officials to gather regional statistics on the health of children. She says she finds the results "terrifying."

Of the 51,381 children born in the province in 1989, 13.1% of them were born either prematurely or with illnesses or defects that require special care. In 1988, the child mortality rate due to congenital malformations or defects of the brain, nerves, heart or respiratory systems was 471 per 100,000 births--the standard calculation devised by the World Health Organization. The comparable figure for France, according to the U.N. agency, is 167.5 per 100,000 live births. The number for Poland as a whole is 443.6 per 100,000, which is the highest rate listed in Europe by the WHO. Including those who survive past one year, a total of 2.1% of those children are disabled from birth, Dr. Osuch says. She adds that 50% of the pregnancies in Katowice are classified as "troubled."

Officially, as she and other scientists point out, it is difficult to pin all the medical problems of children on the environment. Precise causes of infant medical problems, and birth defects in particular, are difficult for science to isolate. Those studying the problem say that parental factors--high rates of smoking, alcohol consumption, diet and stress--all may play a significant role. This is a population that resembles industrial England of the mid-19th Century, with all of the social ills that inspired Karl Marx--whose followers, in turn, were inspired to found Katowice as a "cure."

However limited the precise scientific links between environment and health, Dr. Osuch, like many other physicians and scientists in Katowice, is convinced that pollution is killing the people and maiming the children.

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