The needle and the mountains: The ecological catastrophe in southern Poland

Polluting factory in Poland
Polluting factory in Poland (© Wikmedia Commons)

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Europe began to discover the extent of environmental pollution in the East Bloc. One of the most polluted areas was the Black Triangle, which stretches from southern Poland to northern Czechoslovakia and on to eastern Germany. It’s a region where industrialisation has gone amok. Trees, lakes, cities and people are dying, smothered in a noxious potion of unbreathable air, undrinkable water and chemical waste.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: November 13, 1993


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “The Needle and the mountains, on the ecological catastrophe in southern Poland”, produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

I’m here in Auschwitz, a city in southern Poland, not just any city of course. This is where the Nazis built their most gruesomely efficient death camp. But Auschwitz today has another claim to infamy. It’s one of the most polluted cities in Poland, and it’s located smack in the middle of one of the most polluted areas in the world, the Black Triangle, a region that stretches from southern Poland to northern Czechoslovakia and on to eastern Germany. It’s a region where industrialisation has gone amok, where trees, lakes, cities and people are dying, smothered in a noxious potion of unbreathable air, undrinkable water and chemical waste. Here in Auschwitz, I’ve been to see Pjotr Rimarovic, who is a member of the Green Brigades, a Polish environmental group. And he’s been showing me around the city’s main market square.

I just wanted you to stop here because from that market, you can see the most environmental problem in Auschwitz. Auschwitz is located in a valley. So the conditions here are very bad for people but very good for pollutants because they concentrate here. They can’t go out from the city. You can see a lot of chimneys here because there are small houses. There is no central heating here, and all the houses are heated with coal. And you can smell these pollutants in the air. Every house has its own heating system with its own chimney or even several chimneys in one house, and they burn coal almost all the time, especially in the winter and also during the summer because they are cooking with coal. The main pollutant is of course sulphur dioxide because our coal contains high levels of sulphur. It’s over 1% of sulphur and sometimes it can be even 3 or 5% of sulphur. Today it’s good weather so it is not so bad. But when the weather is bad, when there is fog, it’s difficult to breathe in such a place because the concentration of pollution is so high. That is a very big problem, not only here but in the whole Poland. In Poland, there is a classification  for the cities of higher concentration of pollutants. Auschwitz is on the 13th place. The highest concentrations are in Silesia, I think, but in Auschwitz we don’t have such high concentration of these most popular pollutants like sulphur dioxide, like nitrogen dioxide, but here we have our own specific pollutants, just like mercury. EB: And the mercury comes from the chemical factories, so let’s go to the chemical factory and you can tell me more about it there.

EB: We’re in front of the chemical factory. It looks like a 10-storey building. It’s grey. It looks very old, and this is the main polluter in Auschwitz. Can you tell me what the chemical factory actually produces? It’s a very big factory. It employs 6000 people. So it produces a wide range of chemicals, but the main are just polychlorinated vinyl, polystyrene and metal alcohol. EB: What is the effect of these chemicals on the human body? Doctors says especially chlorovinyl and styrene can cause cancer and mercury can cause brain diseases or something like that. EB: Have doctors noticed a higher incidence of these diseases here in Auschwitz? Yes, they say it’s higher here than in other unpolluted or less polluted cities. It’s difficult to make relation: pollutant and the illness. It’s difficult to say because of this pollutant, you are ill. Because of this pollutant you have cancer. Because of this pollutant, you will die. EB: You’ve painted a very vivid picture of the environmental catastrophe here in Auschwitz, but actually when we were driving around, you couldn’t see very much of that pollution. It looks like any other normal city. Does the fact that the pollution doesn’t seem to be visible, the extent of the environmental disaster doesn’t seem to be visible, does that make it difficult to mobilise people to protest against the environmental problems here? Yes, it’s difficult. As you know, we have a crisis now in Poland. So people don’t care so much about their health, about the environment because they have in fact much more serious problems if they are unemployed or they may become unemployed. Who will care about the environment? Please, wait for a moment. This is my mother. My father and my mother work here, so it’s not a good situation for me EB: to be here. To be here.

The fear of discussing the dirty legacy of four decades of Communist rule is slowly disappearing. And it’s only now that the extent of the devastation is becoming clear. Koen Peters is a Dutch environmental manager who has just completed a six-month stint at the Polish Environment Ministry. He spent a lot of time, travelling around Poland, and he still can’t believe some of the things he saw.

In a power plant, some 80 kilometres south of Warsaw, where they dump their waste from the burning just on a dumping site. In the Netherlands or the whole of western Europe, this is dangerous chemical waste, but here not. It’s just waste. And it’s just dumped on the ground. With dry weather and a bit windy weather, people 60 kilometres from this place, they could feel the ashes between their teeth, this heavy chemical waste. Forests in this area stopped growing 10 years ago. Next there’s a farmer living 200 metres from the site who didn’t want to leave when everyone was bought out and told to move. He was old and he wanted to die there. But the drinking water he gets from his well behind his farm has the colour of tea. Another problem I can mention is a sulphur mine near Tarnobrzeg. This sulphur mine creates a complete moon landscape. For several square kilometres, you only see naked ground, completely without trees or grass or completely without anything and a whole bunch of pipes transporting steam with sulphur and all leaking. Everywhere you see leaking pipes. Once in a while, you have small explosions, ground explosions, a whole cloud of sulphur come up. It’s a dramatic spot. It’s a moon landscape. It’s science fiction.

Hot spots like those might make you think that Poland is nothing more than a wasteland. It’s not. There are areas in north-eastern Poland that are pristine, even cleaner than many parts of western Europe. It’s a different story though in the Black Triangle where the most obvious pollution comes from thousands and thousands of smoke stacks that belch out black and yellow fumes that leave the area almost constantly enveloped in an ugly haze. But factories and cities are also pumping out large quantities of untreated waste directly into Poland’s rivers. Dr. Jerzi Woz is the director of environmental protection in the region of Krakow.

It’s a common problem for many big cities in Poland. They simply don’t have waste water treatment plants, and the same is true in Krakow. 50% of our sewage goes straight into the Vistula River. The rest is treated but only mechanically. However, we hope to solve this problem within the next five years. We want to build a general waste water treatment plant for the Krakow and Nova Huta districts.

In the meantime though, rivers in Krakow and other cities in Upper Silesia will continue to be poisoned. In fact, 65% of Upper Silesia’s water is so polluted that it isn’t even fit for industrial use. All this air, water and soil pollution doesn’t only kill the environment. It also kills people. Dr. Mirswav Chlosi (sp?) is one of Poland’s leading cancer specialists. He works at the Gliwice Institute of Oncology which carries out research on tumours and cancer in Poland. He told me about research currently under way that suggests that pollution is responsible for Upper Silesia’s higher incidence of cancer.

One striking finding is that the mortality – here you have the maps – the mortality is not evenly distributed over the areas. You can see from these maps, there are some clusters. For example, if you look at this map in here, you can see that these clusters are centralised in the centre of Silesia, and it is quite good correlation with the pollution maps. If you take for example the pollution from ’83 and if you take the index of total pollution like I’m showing here, or pollution let’s say with benzopyrene, then you can see that the highest incidence of cancer mortality occurs in the most highly areas. It’s very striking. EB: How long does it take if you’re living in these types of areas for the cancer to  manifest itself? From several data, we know that it’s quite a long time: 20, 30 years. I think the pollution of this area started, serious pollution, in 60’s, 70’s because it was at that time very strong pressure from the local government, central government to produce and produce and produce for all price.

I then went down to the basement of the Oncology Institute to see Dr. Kristov Osinski (sp?) who is a researcher and an environmentalist. He believes there is a direct link between pollution and cancer rates in the voivodeship or region of Katowice.

Here are data you can see: cancer mortality, total number per 100,000 people. It is compared for Poland and voivodeship Katowice because this mortality in our voivodeship is significantly higher than in the rest of Poland. Have a look: Poland, here, 1976. It is mortality per 100,000: 168.6. Silesia: 207.6. Next 1987: it is increased in Poland. For example, the data: 200.2. In Upper Silesia 232.1. I can show you for example the relation for the other countries. In 1970, it was similar in Poland and the western countries. From the last 20 years, you see this significant increase of mortality.

The statistics are gruesome and frightening. But there was more to come. I went back up to Dr. Churosi’s office and asked him about research linking pollution to changes in human genes and chromosomes.

Yes, we have some data not yet published, but we have some data indicating that the number of chromosomal aberrations or frequency of the aberrations are much higher in here than in the rural areas. There are dramatic changes really which substances can cause. What is most important is that it seems that the first target is the genome of the cell. EB: Is there the danger that if pollution levels continue at their present level that these types of mutations will occur much faster or will be much more prevalent in the near future? Well, it is difficult to say but we know that they can accumulate n the progeny of the people for example, and it’s very difficult to predict what can occur.

The babies and children in Upper Silesia are already suffering in large numbers from the ecological catastrophe. They have been for years, but that used to be a state secret. There’s one children’s hospital in Katowice. It has 120 beds, but it could use three times more to treat all the sick children in Katowice. Dr. Pida is the hospital’s deputy director.

We’re currently carrying out epidemiological research on babies and children in the Katowice region. The results of my research indicate that many children in Katowice are born prematurely, and they weigh less than 2.5 kilos which is the absolute minimum for a normal baby. In fact, we have 50% more premature babies here than in the rest of Poland, and I should emphasise that the figure in Poland is higher than the European average. Because of the ecological catastrophe in Katowice, many infants are prone to diseases, such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy and other psychological disorders. On top of that, because of the pollution, respiratory problems are quite frequent here, not only among babies but also children and adults. We have three times more cases of  chronic bronchitis and asthma here, for example, than in the cleaner regions of Poland.

Those figures though did not prepare me for what Dr. Pida and his assistants were about to show me.

She was just saying that this is a 2-year-old little girl who doesn’t move at all. She doesn’t lift her head. She doesn’t roll over. She just lays there. She’s very seriously ill. They are trying to treat her but she cannot even move. EB: What about the other two? These aren’t as seriously afflicted. But they still aren’t crying normally or acting normally. EB: How old are these children? 2 months. And that one 10 months.

The children in this area who were born with respiratory problems are more sensitive in the early stages of their life, but as they get older, the development finally catches up with normal children, but they have to receive continuous and complex combinations of treatment. For instance, there has to be rehabilitation, psychological counselling and speech therapy too. Unfortunately, we don’t have sufficient facilities to provide treatment for all the children who need it. Of course, some children are so severely afflicted that they just can’t benefit from treatment.

In the past, people living in Upper Silesia were encouraged to send their children to north-eastern Poland for a couple of weeks to clean out their system. Now though, because of the country’s economic crisis, few parents can afford to do so. One of the cities that has been hardest hit by the ecological disaster in Upper Silesia is Bytom, only a few kilometres from the children’s hospital. Eva Urbantric (sp?) is the city’s spokeswoman.

The new born mortality: in one of our districts, it’s extremely high. I think it’s the highest rate in the world here. It’s about 47, 48. In comparison with Sweden, you’ve got mortality of new borns of about 5. It means only 5 children for 1000 new borns died. The children in Bytom has about 10, 16 micrograms of lead in blood. It’s extremely high.  It means that in the future, they will be mentally handicapped, and the intelligence rate will be lower. We will also observe changes in character of them. But I think the main problem in this city now as a direct result of the contamination of heavy metals is psychological and nervous diseases here. We’ve got seven times higher rate of neurosis in this city than in all the voivodeship area, which is also higher than in Poland. It means that we’ve got socially, criminally endangerment here.

Polish officials and Western governments argue that before any major steps can be taken to clean up the mess, they must have a clearer idea of the extent of the ecological calamity. The city of Katowice has had a pollution monitoring system for many years, as Anna Sevieski (sp?), the deputy director of the Katowice environmental department, told me.

At this moment, the monitoring system is administered by the voivodeship sanitary, epidemiological station. We have 720 station points where pollutants are measured. These are traditional system measurements, so it means manual system, not automatic monitoring. Now we start to implement and we design a system of 10 automatic stations in the centre of Upper Silesia industrial region, and the system is financed by the World Bank. The information is gathered, and it is published once a year, and it is possible to read and to have by everyone who is dealing with environment in our area. From one of such stations, which is just in the centre of Katowice, the measurements are published every day by the local TV.

A similar system is being installed in Krakow, 100 kilometres away, but the initial tests have made environmentalists like Derek Sved of the Green Brigades extremely sceptical as to the accuracy of the results.

I’m afraid right now about the results because one of them is standing on one of the main streets in Krakow. It’s very polluted with car pollution. But this monitoring system there doesn’t show any problems. It shows that the area is clear and everything is OK. So that’s a problem if the results are OK. If they can show us the real results or if it’s just only for showing the Western countries that it’s standing there and it’s working.

Derek’s answer highlights the lingering distrust people in the former communist countries harbour towards the authorities. But the Polish government has begun to take action to allay those fears. Dr. Stanislaw Garliski, director of the state inspectorate of environmental protection in Krakow.

At the end of October, a new environment law went into effect. The state inspectorate for the protection of the environment has become a type of environmental police, and we’ve been given all the necessary means to control and monitor industrial emissions. The ultimate sanction is to close a factory. But we can also take them to court or impose fines upwards of 200,000 zlotys. But shutting down a factor also involves technical and political considerations. For example, in the Sendzimira metallurgical works, a major polluter in Krakow, there are 30,000 employees. If we were to close the factory, we would have to answer the question of what to do with those people and their families. We have to take everything into consideration, including environmental factors and political needs.

Obviously if the state inspectorate must also consider unemployment, it’s unlikely to close down factories. In fact, in Upper Silesia, fewer than a dozen factories have been closed down on environmental grounds. But recently the state inspectorate has adopted a more aggressive attitude towards the major polluters and it’s now implementing what’s known as the Emission Zero law. Ana Sevieski again.

The level of Emission Zero is established for the factories which we want to shut down. We means the ecological department, establish a permit for using the environment, the permit means the limit of possible pollution. If the factory is within the limit, they have to pay a fee for using the environment. If they exceed the limit, they pay a penalty. So that when we in the permit write the level of pollution zero, every amount of pollution is above the limit, and they have to pay penalties, which is much higher than a fee. And factories from the economical point of view not able to pay it. And that’s why this method we implement it when we want to shut down a factory.

Many factories in Upper Silesia violate environmental norms, and in the short term the state inspectorate can only realistically close down the worst offenders. The sheer size of the environmental mess is staggering, and so far, Poland has received little hope from the West. Koen Peters has been involved in the distribution of over 25 million dollars, provided annually by the European Community to clean up Poland’s environment.

Some 10 projects are financed by this money, which are mainly feasibility studies and master plans. Next there are some projects which equip Polish laboratories and Polish institutes with laboratory equipment. 22 million ecus, well it’s not that big. But it’s part of a big amount of money and next, whatever they are going to give, it will always be peanuts compared to what should be invested. It must be clear that the main investments must come from the country itself.

The German Marshall Fund is also providing aid to Central Europe for the first time this year. Cristina Vaniakowski (sp?) is helping to set up a small grants programme to provide 1 million dollars a year o support grassroots projects.

The money will be distributed through a small grants programme where non-governmental organisations or non-governmental groups will write proposals for different environmental projects, be it environmental education or to help with environmental training of local government officials, or training for environmental groups how to get organised and how to become effective in lobbying for environmental reforms in the country.

The Poles themselves have begun small-scale projects to clean up the environment. Dr. Helena Prisbita is an environmental consultant who’s setting up a waste management project for the city of Katowice. Waste, she told me, is one of the most serious problems facing the region.

The Katowice voivodeship has the area of only 2.1% of our whole country, of whole Poland, and on such a small area, we are producing 52% of all waste in Poland. And in such a small area, 2 billion tonnes of industrial waste are still lying down. So it is really a very serious problem. From the first of November in this year, we have invited in six parts of our town containers for glass with batteries, for paper and for boxes of metal. EB: Do you think that this is an important step on the way to solving some of the environmental problems here or the waste problems in Katowice? I think we have no other choice. We have to start with this. When somebody is caring for the environment, he has to take this way. There is no other choice.

For the Green movement, democracy has presented new opportunities but also new challenges. Darek Sved again.

About two years ago, we started to create this green federation, and it was just enthusiasm of people who wanted to stop all the communists working on the top of the country. After a while, this enthusiasm was running out. Right now we are trying to work not with enthusiasm but we are trying to gather people around special programmes, for instance waste management or planting trees in Krakow because it’s something positive that we want to make. We don’t want to listen to those sentences that can be heard all the time that we are only negative all the time. Now we are trying to construct some positive programmes.

The greatest challenge facing environmentalists and the Polish authorities at the moment is trying to mobilise the general public. Poles are tired of empty slogans and broken promises, and they also realise that the environmental cleanup will cost jobs and that already over 2 million Poles are out of work. Eva Obantric, spokewoman for the city of Bytom.

 I think they are living day by day. If you are living day by day, first you need money, and about your health you will decide and think afterwards.

Alexandra Chosodovic runs the information centre for air protection, a branch of the Polish ecological club. She’s well aware of the enormity of the task facing Poland, but like many environmentalists she knows that cleaning up the environment is not a luxury. It’s a question of survival.

Our economic situation here is very poor, so people the first need is to have money for food. No thinking about environment problems, but we must change our behaviour. So maybe the next generation, maybe the new government will understand better these problems. So it is our daily work. We deal with needle and the mountains.

“The needle and the mountains” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Ronald Hofman. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.