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Atom-Test Legacy Shadows Kazakh Prairie's Calm : Radiation: The Soviets suppressed data on the health effects of over 400 blasts. Experts are meeting today to outline research.

September 15, 1993|IAN MacWILLIAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SARZHAL, Kazakhstan — Kabden Yesengarin sits outside in the evenings watching his grandchildren play and listening to the wind rustle the poplar trees. Life here on the vast Kazakh steppe south of Siberia seems far removed from the stresses of the 20th Century.

The calm is misleading. For 42 years, the rolling green prairie beyond this village, where horses graze, was the Soviet Union's main test site for atomic bombs. Known simply as the Polygon, the Russian term for firing range, it was shaken by more than 400 nuclear blasts.

Atomic testing ended here in 1991, along with the Soviet Union. But medical authorities are just starting to come to grips with the apparent legacy of the fallout--the increased rates of cancer and birth defects registered here and in other settlements near the uninhabited, 7,000-square-mile test site.

"We were told that the Polygon was clean, and the testing would not affect our health," said Yesengarin, 74, a retired health official who watched the first bomb explode here in 1949 and remembers the illnesses that followed.

"If somebody died of stomach cancer, we couldn't report that," he said, recalling the obsessive secrecy around the testing. "We had to write down 'stomach problems' or something like that. People from the KGB came to make sure we said nothing more."

With the KGB gone and the region reopened to outsiders, about 100 medical specialists and other researchers from the former Soviet Union, the West and Japan will gather today in Semipalatinsk, the city nearest the Polygon, to outline the first systematic research into the human and ecological damage from the bombs.

Until 1963, nuclear tests were conducted aboveground about 40 miles southwest of Semipalatinsk. When atmospheric blasts were banned by the Limited Test Ban Treaty that year, the explosions here were moved underground.

All this was done with little regard for human safety. Villagers living on the edge of the Polygon and people who worked inside say they were never told that they faced health hazards.

Yano Yeryinba, who now drives a taxi in Semipalatinsk, worked on a government oil-drilling project in the Polygon for 18 months in the 1960s. "When they were setting off an explosion they took us 30 kilometers (19 miles) or so out of the Polygon," said Yeryinba, who reports chronic "stomach problems" and has had an operation. "Two or three hours after the explosion, we came back."

Because Soviet authorities long prohibited doctors from attributing any illness to radiation, the human damage from the fallout is unclear. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev told a recent conference that his people "still suffer huge losses in connection with nuclear testing."

Statistical estimates belatedly compiled by local physicians in recent years indicate a significant increase in cancers in this region between 1981 and 1991. According to Semipalatinsk's Regional Oncology Center, the number of breast cancer cases per 100,000 inhabitants in that period rose from 13.7 to 23.7, the number of uterine cancer cases from 1.7 to 7.3.

The number of babies with birth defects in Semipalatinsk is 239 per 100,000 live births, compared to 170 per 100,000 in Kazakhstan as a whole, said Dr. Mukhtar Tuleutayev, chief doctor of the regional children's hospital, who declared: "There's a direct connection between children's health and the nuclear testing."

Tuleutayev's efforts in the last years of the Soviet Union to prove such a connection met with frustration. He worked with a team of specialists from the Soviet Radiology Institute in Moscow that did blood analyses in 1989 of people living near the Polygon.

Researchers initially concluded that nuclear radiation had caused immunodeficiency and chromosome aberrations resulting in birth defects, he said. But when the team returned to Moscow, its report was suppressed. It has yet to be published.

In Sarzhal's low mud-brick houses, 12 miles from the Polygon, people are slowly learning the risk to which they have been exposed, but most view it with resignation.

There is a common belief that local people cannot live elsewhere because they have "adapted" to radiation. People tell stories of friends or relatives who moved to Moscow and suddenly fell ill. There may be some basis for this belief, says Tuleutayev, as radiation hardens the artery walls, making the body less adaptable to different climates.

In his wards, Lyuba Terkhova, 5, suffers from bleeding under the skin, and Roshon Nurseitova, 6, has a rare blood disease that causes pains in her legs and stomach. The chief of surgery, Dr. Samat Ospanov, pointed to a mother nursing an infant with immunodeficiency. The baby's fragile skin peels off, and she requires a skin transplant from her mother.

"It's difficult to say whether this could be caused by radiation," Ospanov said. "But when they were setting off nuclear explosions, we had many more children with this problem."

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