Semey Revisited: The legacy of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan

Nearly 30 years after the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan, local people are still suffering the consequences of four decades of exposure to radiation. FRANCE 24’s reporters Sophie Guignon and Miyuki Droz Aramaki went to meet them (October 2018).

Environmental Radiation Exposure and Essential Hypertension in Semey, Kazakhstan

The Semipalatinsk Test Site (marked in red) was the main site for the nuclear testing of the former Soviet Union. It is situated in northeast Kazakhstan, approx. 150 kilometers west of the city Semey (until 2007 named Semipalatinsk)

In November 2018, a study in collaboration with CONEM Kazakhstan Environmental Health and Safety Research Group was published in the journal Environmental Research (1). The study examined the association between environmental radiation exposure and essential hypertension in a series of investigated geographical districts adjacent to the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. The sample consisted of 2000 volunteers who participated in screening examinations in three administrative districts close to the nuclear test site. The research was a part of the government programs in Kazakhstan on environmental health hazard (1).

In April 2019, this study was quoted in a news article by the US science journalist Wudan Yan in the prestigious journal Nature (2): “Lyudmila Pivina at Semey State Medical University and her colleagues found that long-term, low-dose radiation can lead to cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure. They looked at health outcomes in approximately 1,800 people, including second- and third-generation Polygon survivors. When they focused on individuals whose parents lived in areas that were exposed to radiation from 1949 to 1989, they found that the risks of hypertension went up in correlation with the amount of radiation someone’s parents received — a discovery that they found surprising”.

 

References

1. Markabayeva A, Bauer S, Pivina L, Bjørklund G, Chirumbolo S, Kerimkulova A, Semenova Y, Belikhina T. Increased prevalence of essential hypertension in areas previously exposed to fallout due to nuclear weapons testing at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, Kazakhstan. Environ Res 2018;167:129-135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2018.07.016

2. Yan W. In the shadow of nuclear sins. Nature 2019: 568(4 April):22-24. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01034-8

In Small Doses: Arsenic

This is a short movie, made by Dartmouth College in 2009, about the risks associated with exposure to potentially harmful amounts of arsenic in private well water, particularly in New Hampshire and New England.

New Environmental Initiative in Semey, Kazakhstan: The Former Testing Site for the Soviet Union’s Nuclear Weapons

Council for Nutritional and Environmental Medicine (CONEM) has groups in different parts of the world. One of these is CONEM Kazakhstan Environmental Health and Safety Research Group. In June 2017, this group was established at the Semey State Medical University to promote environmental studies. Until 2007 Semey was known as Semipalatinsk. The Semipalatinsk Test Site was the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. It is located on the steppe in northeast Kazakhstan, south of the valley of the Irtysh River. The head of the CONEM group in Kazakhstan is associate professor Lyudmila Pivina, MD, PhD.

Medical Geology: An Emerging Discipline in Environmental and Human Health

Olle Selinus, PhD
Former geologist at the Geological Survey of Sweden (SGU), and now Associated Professor at Linneaus University in Kalmar, Sweden. Board member of CONEM.

Medical geology is the science dealing with the influence of geology on the distribution of health in humans and animals. Medical geology is a rapidly growing discipline that has the potential of helping medical and public health communities all over the world pursue a wide range of environmental and naturally induced health issues. Medical geology brings together geoscientists and medical/public health researchers to address health problems caused, or exacerbated by geological materials (rocks, minerals, atmospheric dust, and water) and processes.  Among the environmental health problems that geoscientists are working on in collaboration with the medical and public health community are: exposure to toxic levels of trace essential and non-essential elements such as arsenic and mercury; trace element deficiencies; exposure to natural dusts and to radioactivity; naturally occurring organic compounds in drinking water; volcanic emissions, etc.

Among the medical geology described are examples of both deficiency and toxicity of trace element exposure. Goiter is a widespread and serious health problem in many developing countries caused by deficiency of iodine. Deficiency of selenium in soil is the principal cause of juvenile cardiomyopathy and muscular abnormalities. Overexposure to arsenic is one of the most widespread medical geology problems affecting more than one hundred million people in Bangladesh, India, China, Europe, Africa and North and South America. The arsenic exposure is primarily due to naturally high levels in groundwater, but combustion of mineralized coal has also caused arsenic poisoning in several developing countries. Dental and skeletal fluorosis also impacts the health of millions of people around the world and is due to naturally high concentrations in drinking water and, to a lesser extent, coal combustion. Other medical geology issues described include geophagia in developing countries, exposure to radon, natural global dusts and ingestion of high concentrations of organic compounds in drinking water.

Promotion of medical geology under ICSU, UNESCO etc, under leadership from Sweden, has been carried out at meetings in many countries, organization and sponsoring of symposia on medical geology and also providing financial support for students and professionals to participate. Short courses have been presented in almost 45 countries since 2001, attended by thousands of students and professionals with backgrounds in geoscience, biomedical/public health science, enviromental science, chemistry, etc.

The International Medical Geology Association (IMGA) was established in January 2006. This was done from Sweden. Every second year IMGA has an international conference. The next will be in Portugal July 2015. Information can be found on the website http://www.medicalgeology.org.

 

References

Selinus O, ed. Medicinsk geologi. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2010.

Selinus O, Finkelman B, Centeno J, eds. Medical Geology: A Regional Synthesis. Dordrecht: Springer, 2010.

Selinus O, Alloway B, Centeno JA, Finkelman RB, Fuge R, Lindh U, Smedley P, eds. Essentials of Medical Geology: Revised Edition. Dordrecht: Springer, 2013.