From 1947 to 1978, mining activities by the former Soviet Union filled tailing dumps and disposal sites around these communities with 2,65 million cubic metres of contaminated waste. During rainstorms runoff from the dumpsite filters into the soil, and residents of Sumsar and Shekaftar suffer from toxic dust exposure and water pollution. Meanwhile, at Kaidarken, a still-operating mercury plant and its dust tailings are located just 300 metres from neighbouring villages.
Environmental monitoring activities successfully collected detailed data on water pollution in all three of these areas, which was the main pathway for uranium exposure to local residents in Mailuu-Suu. The project also revealed additional significant exposure through contaminated meat and dairy products, from cattle that had grazed in contaminated areas. Health monitoring activities confirmed the health impacts on children from exposure to uranium and other heavy metals, and would also show significant improvements the health conditions of children following the installation of filters for drinking water in schools and kindergartens. The levels of uranium and other metal content in the drinking water tested at schools and hospitals decreased 48–65 per cent. In-room exposure of residents of all ages (mostly through radioactive material embedded in walls and penetration by radon gas) decreased 38–55 per cent.
Awareness programmes for children and parents were effective in reducing uranium exposure. These not only transferred the desired knowledge regarding risk-reducing behaviours, but also greatly entertained the local children and stimulated their thinking and creativity.
Despite all the encouraging results, the installation of water filters is not a final solution to communities’ environmental health problems. Decades of unregulated radioactive pollution resulted in local residents living near an area of tremendous historic contamination. Protective technology and basic hygiene precautions can reduce exposures and improve health, but larger, more permanent solutions are required to ensure the long-term health of the population.