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Every breath they take


Suffocating in Sumgait: highest infant-mortality rates in the world.

Alex Smailes

‘Have you seen the small cot in the corner? It’s where the children go to die.’

Sumgait town is 30 kilometres from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. It was once an industrial hub for chemical and heavy-metal production. Over 35 factories made mercury, aluminium, chlorine and acid for the Soviet economy, creating 300,000 tonnes of toxic waste every year. The half-million population of workers lived just a kilometre away. Sumgait soon had the highest infant-mortality rate in the world. Now 70 per cent of the population has some form of toxic-related illness.

Everyday life still goes on in one of Eastern Europe’s most poisoned cities. Isenim, a mother of three, showed no side effects at first. Until, that is, she walked in as her brother-in-law murdered her five-year-old daughter, following a domestic argument. He threw industrial acid in her face and blinded her. Although most of the factories have closed, those that remain and can’t pay their workers give them raw chlorine to store at home and sell on the street.

Dr Ismayilov is a cancer expert in the midst of a silently dying population. He believes they are on the edge of a precipice. The diseases he has identified – a printed list of them fills one side of a large sheet of paper – have started to jump generations. People live in fear of having children.

The Azerbaijan Government has plans for new investment but it lacks the funds and skills to clean up the mess. Some international agencies are trying to help.

Meanwhile, the people of Sumgait know all too well that every breath they take, every mouthful of food they eat, every drop of water they drink is helping them on their way to an early grave.

New Internationalist issue 333 magazine cover This article is from the April 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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