Dzerzhinsk: A Toxic Paradise


Welcome to Dzerzhinsk! Uninviting. Morbid. Deadly. How else can one describe such a place?

Located about 400 kilometers east of Moscow, the city has been given the title of the most polluted city in the World. Russia has two of the world’s top ten most polluted cities, the other being, Norilsk. But Norilsk does not come close to the chemical makeup of Dzerzhinsk.

To understand how Dzerzhinsk came to be one has to comprehend its history. Throughout the Soviet period, Dzershinsk was one of Russia’s most significant sites for chemical manufacturing, including chemical and biological weapons. Production of various chemical weapons started in the 1940s, particularly with the manufacturing of Lewisite – the poisonous effects of which are allotted to its arsenic trioxide content: yperite (mustard gas). In addition to arsenic-based weapons production, prussic acid and phosgene were also produced. Now while chemical weapons production at Dzerzhinsk ceased in 1965, the city, due to its strategic significance and pollution, was, until recently, officially closed to foreign visitors.

During the glory years of Dzerzhinsk, between 1930 and 1998, about 300,000 tons of chemical wastes were indecorously deposited in and around the surrounding areas. These sites include landfills, toxic waste burial grounds, and a so-called “white sea”, composed of disposed chemical wastes. The worrisome thing to note here is that the city only has around 245,000 inhabitants.

So what has resulted from all chemical cocktail? The soils is contaminated, the river water full of chemicals, in short, the whole environment is contaminated. It is estimated that around 190 identified chemicals in the course of Dzerzhinsk’s history have been released into the groundwater and when water samples were taken within the city they showed levels of dioxins and phenol thousands of times above recommended levels.

While the average life expectancy age in the world average is about 70 and respectfully 69 years of age in Russia, in Dzerzhinsk life expectancy for men is 42 and for women 47. This is the lowest average in the whole world and is rather close to that of life expectancy during the Upper Paleolithic period (hunter-gather period). In addition, the death rate exceeds the city’s birth rate by 260%. Nearly a quarter of all deaths and more than 80 percent of all illnesses are due to the environmental factors in this paradise city.

High concentrations of toxic phenol in the air have led to residents of Dzerzhinsk suffering from increased levels of diseases and cancers of the eyes, lungs, and kidneys. Sulfur dioxide in the air also remains a big problem. A study published in 2013 found that 35% of those residents living next to an industrial or mining area had experienced a chronic cough with sputum, compared to just 18% of those residents who did not (odds ratio: 2.16). The toxic emissions and pollutants from local industries are potentially affecting all of the local residents.

While local officials assert that no ecological disaster is present, during the last several years, efforts have been undertaken to close down outdated facilities and remediate contaminated land and water there is little progress being done. A few years ago the Blacksmith Institute (an international non-for-profit organisation dedicated to eliminating life-threatening pollution in the developing world), in cooperation with the local government, funded the installation of water treatment systems in two nearby villages where drinking water supplies were heavily contaminated. However, these are microscopic initiatives relative to the efforts needed to restore this mind-bogglingly polluted area.

Today, modern-day Dzerzhinsk is still a significant center of the Russian chemical industry. There are currently 38 large industrial enterprises, which export their goods worldwide. About one thousand varieties of chemical products are produced in Dzerzhinsk.

Nevertheless, there is hope. This year the Russian government is preparing to allocate 100 billion rubles ($3.3 billion dollars) to the environmental disaster in Dzerzhinsk. Will this Toxic Paradise hold on to its title in the years to come? We will have to wait and see.

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