Cloudy forecast: Rise in breathing ailments blamed on air quality

It is getting hard to breathe in Armenia.

Deforestation and deteriorating air quality have caused asthma and other respiratory ailments to increase dramatically in the last decade, health and environmental officials say. Children are especially at risk.

“While a few years ago the youngest child suffering from asthma was five-to-six-years-old, we have found the illness also with one-to-two-year-old infants in recent years,” says Andranik Voskanyan chief lung specialist for the Republic of Armenia. “This is the reaction of the human organism to the environment. The organism does not catch up to the pace of changes in the environment in struggling with them and adapting itself.”

Overall, the republic’s Ministry of Healthcare reports that the number of people suffering from respiratory ailments has grown by 45 percent, from 5,108 per 100,000 people in 2001 to 7,500 per 100,000 in 2004.

Armenia has experienced rapid changes beginning in the 1990s, first as a result of the energy crisis that prompted large-scale deforestation and the virtual disappearance of places like Yerevan’s Nork Forest, and later as tree-cutting and industrial logging continued. Meanwhile, the transformation of Yerevan city center into a series of café malls, has eaten into urban parks and vital green space.

Health and environmental officials say this is a double blow for the environment and public health: deforestation leads to erosion and an increase of dust in the atmosphere, while loss of urban green spaces also means fewer trees to filter carbon emissions from automobiles and industries.

Statistics from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Non Governmental Organizations involved in reforestation cite a rapid decline in the country’s green umbrella. In Yerevan alone, according to the independent Social Environmental Association, the amount of green space has fallen from 32 percent of the capital in 1986 to 7.6 percent last year. Ministry of Environment Protection statistics show the city’s wooded area is just 2 percent.

Global debate

“Yerevan is on the edge of environmental disaster,” says Karine Danielyan, a former minister of Environmental Protection. “The center of Yerevan is already a zone of ecological catastrophe.”

The environmentalist says her dramatic claims are backed by opinions of common citizens.

Danielyan’s NGO, For Sustainable Human Development, conducted a survey of 300 residents of Yerevan in which 90 percent voiced concern about the loss of green space and air and water contamination. Most said the cause was poor urban planning.

“In former times, when there were building projects in Yerevan, the circumstance of not hindering the winds was taken into account. Today the city authorities do not pose such a question for themselves,” says Danielyan.

Whatever the cause, the result is that Yerevan, always a “windy city”, now also becomes a “city of dust”.

Danielyan says disappearing trees in the republic is creating a “semi-desert climate.”

Air raid: Armenia’s industrial pollutants

Source: Republic of Armenia Ministry of Environment Monitoring Center, 2005.

“In the recent years Yerevan is constantly losing the characteristics that provide necessary conditions for human living,” says Srbuhi Harutyunyan, president of the Social Environmental Association. “The decrease in green areas in its turn affects the quality of air.”

The green areas have gradually been destroyed especially in the center of the capital giving place to modern style cafes and entertainment centers – their owners mainly high-ranked officials or their relatives. (See “Café Culture”.)

“In the recent years the number of young people with serious skin problems visiting me has increased,” says Iza Harutyunyan, a cosmetologist with 20 years of working experience. “I am sure the problems of a large part of them are directly connected with the polluted air.”

The skin specialist’s observation is consistent with the respiratory doctor, Voskanyan. And both bear out the numbers offered by the Social-Environmental Association whose research found that the content of heavy metals in the Yerevan environment exceeds permitted levels of: lead, by 6.4 times; silver, 4.4; zinc, 3.7; chrome, 3.2; nickel, 1.8; and molybdenum, 1.4 times. It is, experts say, a dangerous index.

While the debate about climate change and declining air quality is a global one, environmentalists in Armenia say Yerevan’s disappearing trees has come in tandem with a rising number of vehicles. In 2000 there were approximately 227,000 registered vehicles in Yerevan. By 2005, the number had grown to 300,000, an increase of 32 percent – during a time when the city’s green space had decreased by an equivalent amount. Those factors combined, officials say, contribute to 97 percent of Yerevan’s pollution being caused by vehicles.

Under new rules regulation of emissions inspection has been placed under the authority of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Before, it was overseen by the Ministry of Interior. Vehicles undergo annual emissions inspections, at a cost of 1,200 drams (about $2.50). Special outlets have been opened for the cars to undergo checking to find out to what extent the gas emissions correspond to the permitted limits.

Environment Minister Vardan Aivazyan says the new inspection regime will help reduce pollution. Vehicles that fail the emissions test will not get a window sticker, exposing drivers to fines.

Tapan eco club environmental NGO president Hrant Sargsyan says the impact of the emissions of cars on the air basin would not be that noticeable if the green areas had not been eliminated in Yerevan.

“One should not put the blame for polluted area on car emissions. Had our green zones not been removed, there would not be such a crisis in Yerevan today. If trees remained the air basin could make self-filtration and those emissions would be digested” Sargsyan says.

Cocktail of pollutants

Environmentalists say emissions control is only a partial solution. They say illegal logging and a trail of wood being exported to Iran, Europe and other areas is outpacing efforts to replant forests. They also blame pollutants from mines and smelting operations in southern Armenia and in industrial Alaverdi for the decline in air quality and rise in health problems.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s Monitoring Center reports that levels of dust exceed the government’s own permissible limit in Alaverdi, Ararat, Gyumri, Vanadzor and Yerevan. In some industrial cities, pollutants such as sulfur dioxide – a toxic gas that is an ingredient in acid rain – also exceed limits that are considered healthful.

Acid rain, which results from the mixture of precipitation with high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and other toxins, can be carried long distances and can damage or destroy ecosystems and pollute waterways.

Forty kilometers from Yerevan, in the valley town of Ararat, residents complain of dust from the local concrete plant and gold mine.

“When the wind blows, the city is lost in a dust whirl,” says resident Ararat Hakob, 70. “That dust covers us from top to toes.”

Residents also told ArmeniaNow that runoff from the gold mine has polluted irrigation channels and ruined vineyards, orchards and gardens. Some residents have filed lawsuits seeking compensation for damage, alleging that industrial toxins have hurt their livelihoods.

Data from the Ararat Gold Extraction Plant show that it produces toxins such as hydrogen cyanide, sulfur,, carbon monoxide, ore dust and chlorine vapors. Plant ecologist Anush Gevorgyan says the company operates within limits permitted by the Armenian government.

Environmental Catch-22

Ararat Mayor Hakob Tovmasyan says the town – which is dominated by the peaks of Mount Ararat – is taking steps to clean up the environment. The town has launched an environmental program and has been awarded a $32,000 grant from REC-Caucasus.

But for Ararat and other industrial and mining towns across the country, pollution may represent a trade-off for economic survival.

“My father, who has spent the most part of his life working at the cement plant, says that dawn makes sense to him when he can see the smoke of the cement plant,” Mayor Tovmasyan says. “That way of thinking has been passed over to me: the cement plant smoke is symbolic to me, meaning that the city is alive, the people are employed.”