Water protection and radioactivity mitigation in Mailuu-Suu and other Kyrgyz regions

There are 23 tailing dumps and 13 waste rock dumps scattered throughout Mailuu-Suu, home to a former Soviet-era uranium plant. From 1946 to 1968 the plant produced and processed more than 10’000 tonnes of uranium ore. This has left behind 1,96 million cubic metres of radioactive mining waste. The combination of unsecured radioactive waste and the region’s high seismic activity threatens to contaminate the drinking water supply of the entire Ferghana Valley.

This project aims to improve environmental conditions in the three most polluted areas in the region and address the population’s health situation. Mailuu-Suu and Sumsar-Shekaftar are regions heavily exposed to uranium mine tailings; Kaydarken is, additionally, heavily contaminated with mercury.

Homes, workplaces, and sources of food and water throughout the Mailuu-Suu region were systematically inspected, and installed with protective technologies such as radon detectors and water filters. Before-and-after comparative examinations of radiation levels and health levels were made, alongside raising awareness of the threat and making available relatively simple and affordable protective techniques. These enable local communities to reduce their exposure to radiation and heavy metals without severely disrupting their cultures and daily lives.

These monitoring activities have provided a better understanding of the radiation and health situation in the region. Uranium content in water from the Mailuu-Suu River exceeds public health limits by 2.5 times, and in tap water by 1.5 times. River water sampled in June and October exceeded maximum safe levels for iron concentration by up to 70 per cent. Manganese concentrations were up to 25 per cent above, and molybdenum up to 36 per cent. Elevated average levels of radon were detected in 14 homes.

Blood tests on school children before filters were installed or reactivated showed depressed neutrophil white blood cell counts in 35 per cent of adolescents. Additionally, 18 per cent showed thrombocytopenia – a platelet count below 50,000 per microlitre. Local health officials attributed these abnormalities to radiation exposure. Average rates of cancer in town are twice of average in the oblast and in the country.

Sampling and analysis showed uranium levels in soil to be 50 times higher than background levels. There were also high concentrations of uranium in milk and beef, the skin, horns and hooves of lambs, and the teeth of children and elderly people. Complete therapeutic examination (twice) of 48 adolescents and 56 adults (obtaining three blood test trials, instead of the two planned, meant the number of samples and analyses were 60 per cent greater than expected) showed that the problems identified in adolescent blood tests improved significantly 40 days after the installation of filters.