- SEMIPALATINSK, Kazakstan (AP) -- Dispensary No. 4, set on the vast plains of
Central Asia, was a medical clinic unlike any other in the Soviet Union.
- Its secret task was to collect radiation
data on people living near Semipalatinsk, the huge nuclear testing site
in northern Kazakstan.
- "I knew what was going on, but I
didn't tell anyone because I didn't want to get 15 years (in a labor camp)
or, worse, shot,'' said Boris Gusev, who was the clinic's chief doctor
- Gusev, 60, says he has done everything
he can to help people with his knowledge since Kazakstan gained independence
in 1991 and the sprawling test site was closed.
- "I feel very good because with what
I knew and saw, I could do something to help the people,'' said Gusev,
now deputy director of the state-run Scientific Research Institute for
Radiation, Medicine and Ecology.
- But Gusev's change of heart comes too
late for some of the estimated 1.6 million people exposed to high radiation
levels during the 470 nuclear tests the Soviet military conducted here
between 1949 and 1989. More than 100 of the tests took place above ground.
- Before some explosions, local residents
were told to leave their houses and stay outside. The ground would shake,
glass would shatter and plates would fall from the cupboards. Sometimes
buildings would collapse, residents said.
- No one told them that looking at the
nuclear mushroom cloud could damage their eyes - or worse. No one warned
them their children and grandchildren would lose their teeth, turn gray
in their teens, suffer birth defects or die of cancer.
- "The nature of the deformities that
resulted - they're just gruesome beyond belief,'' said Dr. James Warf,
a chemistry professor at the University of Southern California who has
worked on nuclear projects and studied the effects of radiation in Semipalatinsk.
- Warf described one instance where a stillborn
baby had abnormally large ears and a single eye in the middle of its forehead.
- "This all comes from illnesses caused
by radioactive exposure,'' he said in a telephone interview.
- The people were meant to be part of the
experiment, and the results are only now coming in. Kazakstan's cash-strapped
government has done little to address the problem in recent years, and
Russia simply ignores the issue.
- Still, some Western experts have begun
researching the effects of radiation on the region. The Baylor College
of Medicine in Texas has undertaken a project to wade through old data
that is now becoming available.
- "Unfortunately, the types and duration
of exposure, controversy regarding historical data, the extended period
of secrecy, and current economic and health problems make it quite challenging,''
said Dr. Armin Weinberger, the head of the Center for Cancer Control Research
- At the Home for Psychiatric and Neurological
Patients in Semipalatinsk, the vast majority of the 350 patients are believed
to be victims of radiation, suffering from mental retardation, schizophrenia
and physical malformations, said director Shaiza Rysbekova.
- Kazakstan's government pays only a fraction
of the $800,000 needed to run the home annually and medical staff have
not been paid for two months, Rysbekova said.
- The state's lack of money also has prevented
the payment of compensation to many radiation victims. Residents who lived
in the Semipalatinsk area during the nuclear tests are entitled to a one-time
- The state made payments in 1996, but
only 56,445 pensioners received any money, getting the equivalent of $215
- It's still unclear how many people actually
suffered health problems as a result of the nuclear tests. All data collected
during the Soviet era was sent to Moscow and has not been made public.
- Kazak officials say that for every 100,000
people in Semipalatinsk, 245 will contract cancer, compared with 174 in
Kazakstan as a whole. The pre-natal center in Semipalatinsk said that of
every 1,000 births in 1997, 400 babies had some health problems or deformities
and 47 died.
- But statistics available in Kazakstan
are flawed, and probably understate the problem.
- "I was a doctor and was not allowed
to diagnose cancer,'' said Aliya Begalina, now head of disease prevention
at the Semipalatinsk Department of Health.
- Begalina said she was not trained to
recognize or treat the symptoms of radiation sickness, such as swollen
- "If someone died of cancer, we had
to diagnose a heart problem or another disease,'' she said.