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Russian town is so toxic even the mayor wants it closed down

Fully 96 per cent of all children are deemed 'unhealthy'

Harsh winters, polluted air, crumbling apartment blocks – the residents of many Russian towns might feel that they have cause for complaint. But in Chapayevsk, a town of about 70,000 inhabitants in European Russia, the mayor himself has suggested a novel way of solving the town's problems – abandon it. You can hardly blame him – 96 per cent of all children there are deemed unhealthy.

Chapayevsk, close to the Volga river and the city of Samara, is home to factories that produced chemical weapons for many years, and is blighted by air and soil pollution. According to the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, at a round table meeting on the environment in Samara this week, the town's mayor, Nikolai Malakhov, said that resettling the town's residents would be an "ideal solution" to Chapayevsk's problems.

The town was founded about a century ago and was named Chapayevsk in 1929, after the Bolshevik Civil War hero Vasily Chapayev. It was the site of a chemical weapons factory that churned out mustard gas and other deadly weapons in industrial quantities. The factory also made conventional bombs and mines. According to factory veterans, chemical warheads were made by pouring mustard gas solution from a teapot into the bombs, with the toxic chemicals frequently spilling over into factory drains. Over time the city's water became contaminated with dioxins and other poisons. Today the factory produces herbicides, not chemical weapons, but the pollution in the air and the ground is there to stay.

A study undertaken by American scientists in 2005 found that not only was the air in Chapayevsk contaminated with dioxins, but also locally produced fruit and vegetables, as well as the meat from locally farmed animals. The more local produce that people ate, the more likely they were to get ill. The scientists found dioxin levels in the ground as high as in those parts of Vietnam sprayed with the infamous Agent Orange during the US campaign there. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the fatality rates from throat, liver and kidney cancer in Chapayevsk are three times higher than in nearby cities. The American study found a whole range of sexual abnormalities in Chapayevsk boys, who typically have a late start to puberty.

With the factories no longer providing work, the town also has a high level of unemployment, and one of the highest levels of heroin use in the country, which is contributing to the start of an HIV epidemic. So the mayor's plan sounds like a good one. But a spokesperson at the local parliament denied that there was any serious talk of relocating the town's inhabitants.

Some experts believe that abandoning the town might be the most economically viable option, however. "For 100 years, factories in Chapayevsk have been producing weapons, powders and chemical components," Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia's official environmental watchdog, told a Russian agency. "There are several cities like this in Russia. But we can spend 50m roubles (£1m) on recultivating the stream that runs through the village that has been contaminated, and nothing will improve. To do it right, we'd have to dig a new channel, redirect the stream there, and remove all the soil. Can you imagine how much that would cost? The only sensible way to solve this problem is with resettlement."

But despite all the problems, a representative of the Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, said that Chapayevsk was far from being among the worst Russian cities. "It had an air pollution index of 7.8 in 2007," said a spokesperson. "To be in the league of the dirtiest towns in Russia, it should be 14."

The most famous case of abandonment is Pripyat, now in Ukraine, a town of 50,000 that was evacuated in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.