Eastern European Pollution

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Eastern European pollution

Between 1987 and 1992 the disintegration of Communist governments of Eastern Europe allowed the people and press of countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea to begin recounting tales of life-threatening pollution and disastrous environmental conditions in which they lived. Villages in Czechoslovakia were black and barren because of acid rain , smoke , and coal dust from nearby factories. Drinking water from Estonia to Bulgaria was tainted with toxic chemicals and untreated sewage. Polish garden vegetables were inedible because of high lead and cadmium levels in the soil. Chronic health problems were endemic to much of the region, and none of the region's new governments had the spare cash necessary to alleviate their environmental liabilities.

The air, soil , and water pollution exposed by new environmental organizations and by a newly vocal press had its roots in Soviet-led efforts to modernize and industrialize Eastern Europe after 1945. (Often the term "Central Eu rope" is used to refer to Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, and "Eastern Europe" to refer to the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine. For the sake of simplicity, this essay uses the latter term for all these states.) Following Stalinist theory that modernization meant industry, especially heavy industries such as coal mining, steel production, and chemical manufacturing, Eastern European leaders invested heavily in industrial buildup. Factories were often built in resource-poor areas, as in traditionally agricultural Hungary and Romania, and they rarely had efficient or clean technology. Production quotas generally took precedence over health and environmental considerations, and billowing smokestacks were considered symbols of national progress. Emission controls on smokestacks and waste effluent pipes were, and are, rare. Soft, brown lignite coal, cheap and locally available, was the main fuel source. Lignite contains up to 5% sulfur and produces high levels of sulfur dioxide , nitrogen oxides , particulates, and other pollutants that contaminate air and soil in population centers, where many factories and power plants were built. The region's water quality also suffers, with careless disposal of toxic industrial wastes, untreated urban waste, and runoff from chemical-intensive agriculture.

By the 1980s the effects of heavy industrialization began to show. Dependence on lignite coal led to sulfur dioxide levels in Czechoslovakia and Poland eight times greater than those of Western Europe. The industrial triangle of Bohemia and Silesia had Europe's highest concentrations of ground-level ozone , which harms human health and crops. Acid rain, a result of industrial air pollution , had destroyed or damaged half of the forests in the former East Germany and the Czech Republic. Cities were threatened by outdated factory equipment and aging chemical storage containers and pipelines, which leaked chlorine , aldehydes, and other noxious gases. People in cities and villages experienced alarming numbers of birth defects and short life expectancies. Economic losses, from health care expenses, lost labor, and production inefficiency further handicapped hard-pressed Eastern European governments.

Popular protests against environmental conditions crystallized many of the movements that overturned Eastern and Central European governments. In Latvia, exposés on petrochemical poisoning and on environmental consequences of a hydroelectric project on Daugava River sparked the Latvian Popular Front's successful fight for independence. Massive campaigns against a proposed dam on the Danube River helped ignite Hungary's political opposition in 1989. In the same year, Bulgaria's Ecoglasnost group held Sofia's first non-government rally since 1945. The Polish Ecological Club, the first independent environmental organization in Eastern Europe, assisted the Solidarity movement in overturning the Polish government in the mid-1980s.

Citizens of these countries rallied around environmental issues because they had first-hand experience with the consequences of pollution. In Espenhain, of former East Germany, 80% of children developed chronic bronchitis or heart ailments before they were eight years old. Studies showed that up to 30% of Latvian children born in 1988 may have suffered from birth defects, and both children and adults showed unusually high rates of cancer , leukemia , skin diseases, bronchitis, and asthma. Czech children in industrial regions had acute respiratory diseases , weakened immune systems, and retarded bone development, and concentrations of lead and cadmium were found in children's hair. In the industrial regions of Bulgaria skin diseases were seven times more common than in cleaner areas, and cases of rickets and liver diseases were four times as common. Much of the air and soil contamination that produced these symptoms remains today and continues to generate health problems.

Water pollution is at least as threatening as air and soil pollution. Many cities and factories in the region have no facilities for treating wastewater and sewage. Existing treatment facilities are usually inadequate or ineffective. Toxic waste dumps containing old and rusting barrels of hazardous materials are often unmonitored or unidentified. Chemical leaching from poorly monitored waste sites threatens both surface water and groundwater , and water clean enough to drink has become a rare commodity. In Poland untreated sewage, mine drainage , and factory effluents make 95% of water unsafe for drinking. At least half of Polish rivers are too polluted, by government assessment, even for industrial use. According to government officials, 70% of all rivers in the industrial Czech region of Bohemia are heavily polluted, 40% of wastewater goes untreated, and nearly a third of the rivers have no fish. In Latvia's port town of Ventspils, heavy oil lies up to 3 ft (1 m) thick on the river bottom. Phenol levels in the nearby Venta River exceed official limits by 800%.

Few pollution problems are geographically restricted to the country in which they were generated. Shared rivers and aquifers and regional weather patterns carry both airborne and water-borne pollutants from one country to another. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, which spread radioactive gases and particulates from Belarus across northern Europe and the Baltic Sea to northern Norway and Sweden is one infamous example of trans-border pollution, but other examples are common. The town of Ruse, Bulgaria has long been contaminated by chlorine gas emissions from a Romanian plant just across the Danube. Protests against this poisoning have unsettled Bulgarian and Romanian relations since 1987. Toxic wastes flowing into the Baltic Sea from Poland's Vistula River continue to endanger fisheries and shoreline habitats in Sweden, Germany, and Finland.

The Danube River is a particularly critical case. Accumulating and concentrating urban and industrial waste from Vienna to the Black Sea, this river supports industrial complexes of Austria, Czechia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Before the Danube leaves Budapest, it is considered unsafe for swimming. Like other rivers, the Danube flows through a series of industrial cities and mining regions, each river uniting the pollution problems of several countries. Each city and farm along the way uses the contaminated water and contributes some pollutants of its own. Also like other rivers, the Danube carries its toxic load into the sea, endangering the marine environment.

Western countries from Sweden to the United States have their share of pollution and environmental disasters. The Rhine and the Elbe have disastrous chemical spills like those on the Danube and the Vistula. Like recent communist regimes, most western business leaders would prefer to disregard environmental and human health considerations in their pursuit of production quotas. Yet several factors set apart environmental conditions in Eastern Europe. Aside from its aged and outdated equipment and infrastructure, Eastern Europe is handicapped by its compressed geography, intense urbanization near factories, a long-standing lack of information and accurate records on environmental and health conditions, and severe shortages of clean-up funds, especially hard currency.

Eastern Europe's dense settlement crowds all the industrial regions of the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, and Hungary into an area considerably smaller than Texas but with a much higher population. This industrial zone lies adjacent to crowded manufacturing regions of Western Europe. In this compact region, people farm the same fields and live on the same mountains that are stripped for mineral extraction. Cities and farms rely on aquifers and rivers that receive factory effluent and pesticide runoff immediately upstream. Furthermore, post-1945 industrialization gathered large labor forces into factory towns more quickly than adequate infrastructure could be built. Expanding urban populations had little protection from the unfiltered pollutants of nearby furnaces. At the same time that many Eastern Europeans were eye witnesses to environmental transgressions, little public discussion about the problem was possible. Official media disliked publicizing health risks or the destruction of forests, rivers, and lakes. Those statistics that existed were often unreliable. Air and water quality data were collected and reported by industrial and government officials, who could not afford bad test results.

Now that environmental conditions are being exposed, cleanup efforts remain hampered by a shortage of funding. Poland's long-term environmental restoration may cost $260 billion, or nearly eight times the country's annual GNP in the mid-1980s. Efforts to cut just sulfur dioxide emissions to Western standards would cost Poland about $2.4 billion a year. Hungary, with a mid-1980s GNP of $25 billion, could begin collecting and treating its sewage for about $5 billion. Cleanup in the port of Ventspils, Latvia, is expected to cost 3.6 billion rubles and $1.5 billion in hard currency. East German air, soil, and water remediation get a boost from their western neighbors, but the bill is expected to run between $40 and $150 billion.

Ironically, East European leaders see little choice for raising this money aside from expanded industrial production.Meanwhile, business leaders urge production expansion for other capital needs. Some Western investment in cleanup work has begun, especially on the part of such countries as Sweden and Germany, which share rivers and seas with polluting neighbors. Already in 1989 Sweden had begun work on water quality monitoring stations along Poland's Vistula River, which carries pollutants into the Baltic Sea. Capital necessary to purchase mitigation equipment, improve factory conditions, rebuild rusty infrastructure, and train environmental experts will probably be severely limited for decades to come, however.

Meanwhile, western investors are flocking to Eastern and Central Europe in hopes to build or rebuild business ventures for their own gain. The region is seen as one of quick growth and great potential. Manufacturers in heavy and light industries, automobiles, power plants, and home appliances are coming from Western Europe, North America, and Asia. From textile manufacturing to agribusiness, outside investors hope to reshape Eastern economies. Many Western companies are improving and updating equipment and adding pollution control devices. In a climate of uncertain regulation and rushed economic growth, however, no one knows if the region's new governments will be able or willing to enforce environmental safeguards or if the new investors will take advantage of weak regulations and poor enforcement as did their predecessors.

[Mary Ann Cunningham Ph.D. ]



French, H. F. "Restoring the Eastern European and Soviet Environments." In State of the World 1991. New York: Norton, 1991.

Feshbach, M., and A. Friendly, Jr. Ecocide in the USSR. New York: Basic Books, 1992.


Hartsock, J. "Latvia's Toxic Legacy." Audubon 94 (1992): 27-8.

Wallich, P. "Dark Days: Eastern Europe Brings to Mind the West's Polluted History." Scientific American 263 (1990): 16, 20.

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Eastern European Pollution

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Eastern European Pollution