Rocket fuel has caused shocking health effects in southern Siberia

The inhabitants of the Russian republic of Altai have sounded the alarm over alleged devastating health impacts caused by toxic rocket fuel that has been raining down on the region for decades.

Medical specialists, local people and the Russian media are now linking rocket fuel from launches from the Baykonur Cosmodrome in neighbouring Kazakhstan to an increase in illnesses such as cancer among the republic’s 200,000 inhabitants, and other phenomena ranging from jaundiced new-born babies to mutant rodents. It is alleged that fragments from launches fall back to Earth while toxic fuel billows out over a large area of Altai, contaminating the soil where fragments fall with the extremely toxic substance, heptyl.

Russian newspapers and television channels have recently reported on many cases of illnesses documented by doctors which have been put down to heptyl pollution, including a rise in the mortality rate and a higher incidence of cancer, which have also been observed in regions of Russia where intercontinental ballistic missiles and silos are blown up and where missile engines run on heptyl fuel are tested. The director of a centre for independent ecological research, Mariya Cherkasova, reportedly told local television that women in the republic have started giving birth to babies that turn yellow as soon as breast-feeding begins and that “only a blood transfusion can save them”. Altai’s chief pediatric surgeon, Yuriy Ten, told reporters that Baykonur has caused an increase in premature births – from between 30 and 35% 15 years ago, to 73% today, and that many women now give birth in their sixth month of pregnancy.

A local rural administration head, Viktor Pakhomov, said that two to three days after rocket launches local people develop awful headaches, pressure drops, sudden increases in bodily temperature, pains in the joints and dryness in the mouth, yet there are reports of other occurrences too, from grassland turning yellow to entire villages being emptied due to a fear of illness. One newspaper reportedly said that there has been no extermination of rodents for the past two years, because they have left of their own accord, and that in their place strange, mutated rodents have been spotted.

A study by the television channel, Russia TV, estimates that almost a third of Altai Republic is littered with fragments of booster rocket stages and preliminary figures indicate that there are several hundred tonnes of space debris in the area. Despite warnings, it reportedly says, local peasants go out to collect the rocket fragments, and even the fuel tanks, in the hope of selling them as scrap or of using them as building material.

Health fears have been increasing in correlation with an increase in launches from Baykonur, where for many years there were an average of four per year, now there are about four launches every month. Local media is also concerned about any launches from such a location anyway saying that in other countries, rockets are always launched above oceans, and that ships are warned where the rocket stages are expected to fall, which is not the case in Altai.

However, the Russian media has been unable to get answers about the health or environmental situation in relation to the rocket launches from the two agencies involved in the monitoring of possible effects, the Russian Defence Ministry and the Russian Space Agency, which uses the Kazakh base. Residents of Tretyakovskiy District, among the worst hit in Altai Republic, have allegedly already appealed three times to the republic’s president to look into the causes of the increasing mortality rate among people and animals, but have had little response. “Those who have an interest in the launches from Baykonur will never give us the truth about the real scale of the threat the launches pose,” the deputy governor of Altai Republic reportedly told Russian television.

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