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Environmental and health problems in the Republic of Georgia

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(June 30, 1995) Georgia is a small mountainous country situated on the eastern coast of the Black Sea and the southern slope of the Greater Caucasian range.

(435.4299)HUMECO - An increasing number of ecological problems currently affect the health of Georgian population. Even though most of the industrial units of the country have stopped during the last years influence of pesticides, ferrous and nonferrous metals and the emissions from the extraction of minerals and oil refinery cannot be considered as immediately affecting the health of the population at the same scale as during the Soviet period, Georgia still faces very significant long-term health problems. In addition, the progressively worsening inadequate nutrition, the untreated drinking water and the domestic, industrial waste and sewage now have an increasing impact on the health of Georgian people. Since previous regular monitoring of pollution has completely stopped for the moment, the data on environmental problems cannot be represented as up-to-date one for this moment.

Today, no effective mechanism provides for the recycling and dumping of toxic waste. During the Soviet period, one dumping site of chemical and toxic waste had been functioning near Tbilisi (Martkhopi); lately, since the export of the radioactive waste out of Georgia, mainly to Russia, was stopped, the site has been used for the dumping of radioactive remains from the scientific and medical-oncological centers and has filled up. The chemical waste from the different industrial enterprises and the radioactive remains from the several, still-active scientific and medical institutions are piled up on the territories surrounding these locations, contaminating the local environment and endangering the health of the neighboring population. At this moment, the building of a new site for dumping both chemical and radioactive waste is in the process of consideration.

Other sites pose further radioactive and chemical dangers. For example, at this moment, there is no data available on the character and level of radioactive and chemical contamination of the former military bases of the Soviet army, and also, of scientific nuclear reactors formerly operated in Sukhumi and Mtsketa (near Tbilisi). The Sukhumi reactor used to be under military control, and subordinated to the state defense system. Today, because of the complicated political situation after the armed conflicts on the territory of Abkhazia, the data on the status and environmental impact of the reactor are not available. The Mtskheta reactor belonged to the Institute of Physics of the Academy of Sciences of Georgia. The 5-Megawatt reactor began functioning in 1959. No significant accidents have occurred at the site, and the contamination of the local environment has never been the subject for serious consideration. However, in 1991, because of the age and the potential lack of security, the reactor was stopped through the efforts of Georgia Greens. Ninety percent of the remains from radioactive fuel was exported to the Russian Federation. Five to ten percent remain at the site today, together with 17 bars of radioactive fuel, which especially need to be transported to another destination. The importance of decommissioning the reactor has rapidly risen recently due to the worsening of the crime situation in Georgia. Recently, two contaminated dosimetric cars and some aluminum parts have been stolen from the site. The reactor and its radioactive fuel are in danger of being dismantled just by the local population, potentially causing high contamination of the local environment and the city. Although a plan has been drawn up for the decommissioning of the reactor, financial difficulties may prevent the execution of the plan in the near future.

Health and exposure to radiation
The health condition of the Georgian population is continually worsening. In 1988, over 5,600 persons died from cancer. In the most cases, oncological diseases of the skin and the respiratory system were registered. Intrauterine defects have resulted in an increased level of infant mortality.

The incidence of leucoses has been increasing dangerously since 1986. For Tbilisi, the difference between the 1988 and 1985 is 100%: in 1985, there were 56 cases and, in 1988, 122 cases of the disease. The same tendency has been identified on a national scale: in 1985 - 157 and in 1988 - 333 cases of the leucoses. The rise seems to be connected with the radioactive contamination of the territory of Georgia in the period following the catastrophe at Chernobyl.

Results of the Chernobyl accident
The radioactive contamination of the territory of Georgia as a result of Chernobyl accident has never become the subject for the consideration by Soviet and international societies -- even though the pollution by radioactive isotopes of the territory of western Georgia, particularly that of the Black Sea coastal region, had been much higher than in some regions of Belarus and Krasnodar. After the Chernobyl accident, the radioactive background on some areas of the Black Sea coastal region of Georgia rose 100,000 - 500,000 times. In the atmosphere of Tbilisi and Sukhumi, the monthly concentrations of beta-active aerosols in May 1986 were 80,670.3 x 105 and 210,313.9 x 105 Bequerel/m2, respectively. The concentration of Iodine-131 spread on the soil in May 1986 was registered as 1 curia/km2 in Tbilisi and 5 curia/km2 in Sukhumi. By gamma-spectrometric analysis, radioactive pollution of the surface of soil ranged from 663,349 to 1,018,903 in Bekereli/m2. and some places on the territory of Adjaria. The same levels of contamination have been identified for the isotopes of Cesium-137. For comparison, in 1985, the concentrations of beta-active aerosols in Tbilisi and Sukumi were 41,4 x 105 Bequerel/m2 and 12,0 x 105 Bequerel/m2 -- annual levels, respectively.

In the year after the Chernobyl accident, Georgia was never mentioned in the official state documents on either the national or international levels, as a country affected by the catastrophe. Thus, nothing has ever been done for the rehabilitation of the environment. No preventive measures for the protection of the health of Georgian people have been conducted. Pasturing of cattle on the contaminated grassfields of western Georgia has not been prohibited and the products polluted by the radioactive isotopes, especially by Iodine-131 (such as milk), have been spread and used all over the territory of Georgia, together with polluted tea -- strongly contributing to the increase of the harmful impact of radioactive factor on the health of the Georgian population.

The influence of the Chernobyl catastrophe on the health of the population of this republic seems to be especially strong because of a level of exposure similar to the one due to Chernobyl in the early 1960s that affected the total population of Georgia. As a result of nuclear testing in the northern hemisphere, radioactive contamination continued for several months, at a level higher, compared with the average level for the USSR, by a factor of ten. According to recently uncovered medical statistics of the following years (which were carefully hidden at the time), the health of Georgian population worsened significantly, especially the thyroid gland disorders and children's mortality.

In 1991, governmental bodies of the republic issued several documents explaining the necessity of beginning a serious investigation of the impact of the Chernobyl accident on Georgia -- and a rehabilitation of the environment and health. In fact, neither Georgian nor the relevant central institutions of the former USSR, ever conducted any practical measures in this direction and, thus, Georgia has remained a 'blank spot' on the world map in regards to the influence of the Chernobyl accident on its people and environment.

Human Ecology Center
Founded in May 1994, the Human Ecology Center (HUMECO) is an independent, non-political, non-profit environmental organization that aims to achieve sound environmental conditions for a physically, mentally and emotionally healthy Georgian society. HUMECO hopes to begin to bring both national and international attention to the environmental and health situation in Georgia.

As such, the organization aims to achieve the following over the next two years:

  • creation of an independent, complete and objective information bank on the environmental, health care and social problems of Georgia;
  • arrangement of regional expeditions/field investigations, covering the whole territory of the republic in collaboration with highly skilled specialists;
  • coordination and performance of practical local treatment measures, by attracting technical, medical, financial, humanitarian help to the identified problems;
  • arrangement of the relevant conferences, workshops, exhibitions, publications, video documentaries;

As the first step toward the practical realization of its aims, HUMECO udertook the project "Influence of radiation on increased rates of thyroid gland diseases in Georgia, in the period after the Chernobyl accident". In July 1994, HUMECO received funding for the project - a grant (of under US$2,000) from the international organization ISAR (formerly the Institute for Soviet-American Relations). The project investigated the long-term influence of radioactive contamination on the territory of western Georgia and sought to identify its possible connection with the increased rate of the enlargement of thyroid gland among the population of the region, especially among children.

After gathering the information from the radiological services about the radioactive pollution of Georgia after the Chernobyl accident, the staff of HUMECO identified areas of the most intensive contamination for the perspective medical investigation of the local population and conducted expeditions in different cities of western Georgia. The cities were chosen in a such way that the investigations could be conducted in areas with different levels of incidence of radioactive and epidemiological factors:

  1. in the regions on the Black Sea shore with high level of radioactive contamination after the Chernobyl accident, which had never been registered as endemic zones for the thyroid gland disorders;
  2. in contaminated, but partially endemic zones for thyroid gland disorders, from the viewpoint of the natural deficit of iodine and consequent increase of goiter (there are 34 populated regions of the type all over the country);
  3. in the region of eastern Georgia which had been neither contaminated nor endemic. (This city was also chosen since, until 1986, statistics on the frequency of the thyroid gland disorders had been neither well-systematized nor properly collected, and thus it became impossible to compare the frequency of the thyroid gland pathologies before and after 1986. In order to provide an appropriate base for comparison, an expedition in a city of eastern Georgia where the radioactive contamination in 1986 was remarkably lower and almost leveled to the normal compared with the western Georgian regions was needed).

Coordinated by the staff of HUMECO, the expeditions consisted of the group of a radiologist and physicians from the Republic Center of Endocrinology. The radiologist performed the dosimetry of the regions, in order to exclude the current contamination of the areas of formerly contaminated. The radiologist found the current level of radioactive pollution in the regions as below allowable limits. At the same time, medical investigations were performed by the method of palpation. To avoid subjunctive faults, the enlargement of the glands of only the grades "Ib", "II" and "III" have been included in the pathological statistic data. "O" and "Ia" grades have been considered as the ignoreable changes. Five groups of population were chosen: 6, 10, and 14 year-old children and 18 to 45 year-old adults and adults over 46. All together, 1,374 people of different age groups have been investigated.

The following results were found, based on this investigation:
Enlargement of the thyroid gland:

  • in the control group (the population of Tsnori, a city in eastern Georgia) the evident enlargement (Ib+II+III) of the thyroid gland has been registered in 6.08%;
  • in the Black Sea coastal cities Poti and Batumi, which represented areas of no endemic disease and high level of contamination, the enlargement was 21.47% (X2 = 26.65; P<0.01), and 20.98% (X2 = 24.57; P<0.01), respectively;
  • in the western Georgian cities, Tskaltubo and Tsipa, which represented the areas of the partial endemic and high level of contamination, frequency of the disorders was respectively 22.52% (X2 = 29.07; P<0.01) and 23.32% (X2 = 23.52; P<0.01);
  • Hyperplazia of the thyroid gland, among the population under 18 years old:
  • in Tsnori 6.0%;
  • in the Black Sea coastal cities Poti and Batumi, 23.97% (X2 = 20.87; P<0.01) and 31.10% (X2 =32.32; P<0.01), respectively;
  • in the western Georgian cities, Tskaltubo and Tsipa, 21.6% (X2 = 16.33; P<0,01) and 43.4% (X2 = 28.42; P<0.01), respectively.

The results clearly show that despite the absence of the deficit of iodine in the cities along the Black Sea coast highly affected by radioactive contamination, the frequency of the thyroid gland disorders remarkably increased. The increase is mostly identified among the children. The frequency of the disorders of thyroid gland is much lower in the eastern Georgian city. Interestingly, in Tskhaltubo, where the radioactive contamination was lower than in coastal cities but where the disease is endemic, the incidence of thyroid gland disorders among children was much lower than in the coastal city Batumi. The fact could be explained by the more intensive sensitivity of children and their thyroid gland to the radiation and especially to the radioisotope of iodine. At the same time in Tsipa, where radiation was two to three times higher because of its geographical situation, the incidence of the thyroid gland disorders was higher among the children, than among the adults.

This independent non-governmental investigation has clearly proven the theoretical suggestion that the increase of the frequency of thyroid gland disorders in the non-endemic and also endemic zones of west Georgia is due to the high radiation levels in 1986. The increase, especially among children, has been identified in the cities, which have been strongly contaminated after the Chernobyl accident.

Source and contact: Maia R. Mgaloblishvili, General Director Human Ecology Center/HUMECO. Room 33-34 (Tsodna), Kostava Street Nr. 47,
Tbilisi 380071, Republic of Georgia
Tel: +995-8832-936940; Fax: +995-8832-999594
Or during July-August in Amsterdam: Tel: +31-20-622 1366; Fax: +31-20-627 5602;