Pollution threatens Armenians living near mines

Journalist: Tatevik Tshughuryan


When three-year-old Valentina Mirzoyan starts to feel faint, her parents already know what to do: they call the doctor, look for a car to get to the hospital, and try to keep her from losing consciousness.

The toddler has been in and out of hospitals and local clinics for years but her symptoms persist and doctors cannot agree on a diagnosis. Her parents Hrach and Narine are sure what the culprit is, though: the air they breathe in their home in Mets Ayrum, in Armenia’s northern Lori Province. 

“The child turns white, the color drains from her body in a second,” her mother, Narine Kirakosyan, explains. “We have been going to hospitals for two years. We took her to Arabkir Hospital, where they said she was just dehydrated. We visited the hematology center three or four times. The doctor there insists it is not a lack of water but of iodine and iron. However, at the hospital in Vanadzor [a nearby city], they saved her life three times… They diagnosed it as allergic bronchitis.”

Three-year-old Valentina looking for her medicine.

She recalls the doctor’s reaction when she told him they lived just a few hundred meters from a mining waste site, infamous for its toxic odors. 

“The doctor stated that its smell is very dangerous for the child, though they didn't provide any written documentation,” Narine says. 

The Mirzoyans live next door to a 13.7 hectare mining waste site, Nahatak. The site, owned by Akhtala mining and processing plant, was set to be reclaimed—a process that would have closed the area to new waste in 2021, but continues to function. Both also suffer from health problems, as do their neighbors. In total, 13 settlements with around 40,000 people live near the mining in Lori region. 

“We all suffer from headaches, the entire family is unwell,” Kirakosyan says. “I have diabetes and high blood pressure. My condition worsens rapidly, all due to the air quality. And we are not alone; the whole village is in the same situation. During windy days, the situation becomes even more concerning.”

Hrach Mirzoyan, Valentina’s father, explains that on windy days, leftover materials from the nearby mining process—known as tailings—are carried into the family’s yard. “After rain, the situation becomes unbearable; an unpleasant smell permeates everything. We are afraid to consume anything from our garden.”

Nahatak initially operated during the Soviet era but was closed for several decades before it reopened in 2010. Oleg Dulgaryan, a former resident of Mets Ayrum, confirms that local children have always had health problems but doctors have never been able to provide clear explanations.

Anush Ghalayan, a local pediatrician who has treated Valentina, emphasizes the need for thorough research before attributing health issues to tailings exposure. 

"As a pediatrician, I lack information about tailings' contents and their specific impact on children's health. Frequent illnesses can result from a lack of conscious healthy habits,” Dr. Ghalayan explains. “Symptoms like fainting and weakness during fever may not solely correlate with tailings exposure without rigorous research. Inadequate nutrition and care can also contribute to illness, irrespective of nearby chemical sources.”

But studies conducted in 2018 and 2021 have found evidence of hazardous contamination in the area. For instance, urine samples from residents of nearby communities--Akhtala, Shamlugh, and Chochkan—discovered high levels of arsenic in their urine samples. The highest levels were found in children living in the Mirzoyan’s village, Mets Ayrum.

The studies, conducted in collaboration with the Community Mobilization and Support Center, EcoLur, and other NGOs, used samples from local air, soil, water, riverbeds, eggs and residents in 136 locations. Research conducted by a certified Czech Institute of Health laboratory revealed that the content of heavy metals, especially arsenic, cadmium, lead, zinc, and copper, exceeded the norm several times over. 

The tailings pond looks like a small lake.

The results of the studies have not helped the Mirzoyan family or other residents, however. Dulgaryan, the president of the Community Cohesion and Support Center, notes that the health ministry expressed interest in the studies’ findings and invited World Health Organization specialists to study four communities but the plan was disrupted by the 2020 pandemic. According to Dulgarian, the ministry did not take any action after that.

In response to an interview request from the Armenian Ministry of Health, the Arnica research does not include any analyses about how substances enter the human body through different conditions or the hazards to individuals or communities. 

The ministry also noted that its own chemical tests from soil samples taken from around the country, including areas commonly thought to be ecologically clean, revealed concentrations of heavy metals such as copper, zinc, arsenic, chromium, lead, and others. Currently it attributes the findings to the country’s diverse geographical features and other causes.

For instance, the response noted that certain paints, gasoline, and other sources can contribute to lead contamination.

"The Ministry of Health emphasizes the need for long-term, in-depth epidemiological studies, combined with laboratory research and the involvement of scientific expertise, to identify and confirm the cause-and-effect relationship of these factors on human health," it said in the response.

There was no indication of when or if the study will be conducted in the response. 

Instead, based on the “Arnika” studies’ findings, 70 residents from Mets Ayrum and Chochkan villages filed a lawsuit against the Akhtala mining and processing plant seeking compensation for health and economic damages.

The case was initially rejected by the courts; the residents appealed the decision and the appeals court ordered that it should be studied and reheard in the court of first instance. The court is currently investigating the claim. Residents say they will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if they cannot find justice in Armenia. 

Dulgaryan believes there is ample evidence in the studies that were already conducted to support their case. 

“Disregarding these findings would cast doubt on the credibility of state-accredited laboratories, which adhere to European Union standards,” he notes. “Armenia's extensive partnership agreement with the EU prioritizes environmental protection and public health, affirming the necessity to safeguard people's rights accordingly.” 

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