The ecology of much of the region has been seriously disturbed by the clear-cutting of forests, peatland drainage schemes and pollution from industrial waste water and sewage. Drinking water in Karelia is normally drawn from lakes and rivers, many contaminated by effluent from large metallurgical, pulp and paper plants. Raw sewage is also regularly released into lakes and rivers near unprotected drinking water intakes, causing repeated serious outbreaks of dysentery, hepatitis-A and other gastrointestinal complaints.
Even where water is heavily chlorinated, high rates of cancer result, since chlorine combines with the increasingly high levels of humic matter in drinking water to form carcinogenic substances. An estimated 100 extra cases of cancer per year result from this problem in the city of Petrozavodsk alone, the authors estimate.
The report is highly critical of the Soviet era, but claims that today's authorities have continued to neglect old problems like toxic wastes and serious levels of industrial air pollution. Around the Nadvoitsy aluminium plant 85% of the local children suffer from fluorosis, it says. The incidence of cancer is alarmingly high in some industrial areas.
Russia's economic crisis has reduced industrial pollution somewhat, as old, inefficient factories have ground to a halt, but any environmental benefit is largely cancelled out by other trends such as increasing car ownership. Petrol is still leaded in Russia, and the air and vegetables grown near towns and major roads can contain dangerous levels of lead. The sudden arrival of a consumer society has led to a rapid increase in waste, with many citizens opting to burn their refuse or dump it in the woods.
Relatively inexpensive measures are recommended to combat the problems. As well as containing Europe's two largest lakes, the region is blessed with plentiful ground water reserves, which could easily and safely be used for drinking water. Even the most basic treatment of drinking water, industrial waste water and sewage could dramatically improve the environmental health situation.
Finland has a particular interest in Karelia, as the native Karelians are closely related to the Finns, and much of this region was Finnish territory until the Second World War. The stark contrast between conditions in Finland, where environmental health risks have been largely minimised, and the state of the environment in Karelia, has encouraged the Finnish authorities to expand assistance projects.
Finnish environment ministry, tel: +358 9 1991 9505.
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