When Man and Nature Collide: Protect the environment to protect health

Too much construction, too little green space, creates breathing problems.
Environmentalists and healthcare specialists conclude that an increase in respiratory ailments in Armenia can be attributed to a decrease in nature’s ability to clean the air as a result of over-logging and industrialization and destruction of green areas in cities.

Between 2001-2005, cases of respiratory illness increased from 119,550 to 161,045 – an increase of 35 percent.

Ecological destruction accelerated in the 1990s, at first in response to the energy crisis that came during winters of drastic cold. In the years following, further destruction came as trees were indiscriminately cut for export and for use in Armenia’s new furniture factories.

The result to the ecology was near desertification, which was further complicated by an increase in vehicle exhausts and, in Yerevan, the dramatic boom in construction over green spaces, conditions against which agencies such as Armenia Tree Project now battle.

In 2000, there were 227,000 registered automobiles in Yerevan. By 2005, the number had grown to 300,000, an increase of 32 percent. Exhaust emissions and decrease of green area was responsible for 97 percent of the capital’s air pollution.

According to data of the Social-Ecological Association, Yerevan had 32 percent green areas in 1986. By 2005 green space had decreased to only 7.6 percent, and according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), only 2 percent of the capital has tree groves.

The result is felt anytime the wind stirs, including at medical clinics where more breathing-related complaints are being heard.

“The number of young people addressing me with serious dermatological problems has increased in the recent years,” says cosmetologist with 20 years of working experience doctor Iza Harutyunyan. “I believe the part of problems of my patients is directly tied up with the contaminated air.”

According to the data of the Social-Ecological Association, concentration of heavy metals within the vacinity of Yerevan exceeds the permitted levels by up to 6 times in at least one case.

Outside the capital, the monitoring center of the MEP says the concentration of certain types of chemical elements and the dust exceeds the permitted limits in Alaverdi, Kajaran, Ararat, Gyumri, Vanadzor.

In the town of Alaverdi, home of a copper smelting plant, the number of children under 14 suffering from respiratory illnesses increased from 679 cases in 2001, to 1,239 in 2003.

Meanwhile in the town of Ararat, some 40 kilometers outside Yerevan, residents complain that their air is thick with dust and contaminants from a cement factory and a gold-processing plant.

The data of the Ararat gold mining plant show the exhaustions include toxic agents such as cyanide, sulfur and carbon monoxide, mine stone dust and chlorine vapors.

Farther from the capital, residents of Kajaran (situated some 350 kilometers from Yerevan) joke saying that their town differs from others by a wide-spread coughing. The number of cardiovascular illness and incidents of lung tumors has increased in recent years, believed to be directly connected with the exhausts by the copper-molybdenum plant.

“Unlike other towns here we have jobs; but the air is in terrible condition. The cases of female and male genital illnesses have also increased, many of them have tumors. But the topic is forbidden in the town, otherwise you can lose your job,” says resident Karine, 50 (who would not give her full name for fear of reprisal).

Vardan Avagyan, senior doctor of the town still makes judgments on the illnesses by studying the catalogues:

“The town is an endemic hearth where the thyroid gland, female genital and mammary gland illnesses are spread,” says Avagyan.

“Since Soviet times the cases of silicosis, illnesses of respiratory organs and blood have been the most widely spread in Kajaran,” says Emil Babayan, head of the laboratory of industrial toxicology at the Research Institute for General Hygiene and Professional Diseases. “It’s an industrial illness that emerges by the mining dust inhalation. There is also a high level of male genital illnesses, which is mainly connected with lead and molybdenum.”

Babayan adds that such mining plants typically produce cadmium, iron and arsenic, all of which are hazardous, as is evidenced by cases he sees in Kajaran.