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Poverty Times #1

One of the worst environmental hot spots in the Balkan

In 2000 UNEP called the former Albanian pesticide and chemical plant at Durrës “an environmental disaster”. The plant is responsible for acute human suffering. By John Bennett

In 1990 Albania legalised migration after 40 years of government repression and poor people (mostly from the mountainous north of the country) left their villages in search of better economic prospects near the two largest cities Tirana and Durrës. That year the Durrës plant, which had manufactured pesticides such as the now banned lindane and thiram, and sodium dichromate for leather tanning, was closed during an economic downturn. Today thousands of people live on the contaminated land surrounding the plant.

The area of greatest concern is the site of the plant itself. The grounds are contaminated with lindane and chromium residues. Families have built homes using contaminated bricks from the disused factory; children play on toxic soil; and cows, goats and sheep that supply milk and food to residents graze the contaminated grounds and drink polluted well water.

Lindane (gamma-HCH) is one of the most dangerous chemicals and is associated with liver cancer. It persists in the environment and accumulates in the food chain. UNEP soil samples at the Durrës site showed extremely high HCH isomer concentrations, in the range of 1,290 mg/kg to 3,140 mg/kg. In Holland intervention is required when soil concentrations of HCH isomers exceed 2 mg/kg.

UNEP took a water sample from a well at the site and found 4.4 mg/litre of chlorobenzene, over 4,000 times the acceptable level for drinking water in some EU countries. Repeated exposure to large quantities of chlorobenzene can affect the nervous system, bone marrow, and internal and reproductive organs

Chromium contamination of groundwater supplies is another major concern. Thousands of tons of soil contaminated by chromium and other waste
have been dumped near the former factory, and there are no barriers to prevent leaching of contaminants to the water table below.

The situation at the Durrës site has not improved since 2000 when UNEP called it “one of the worst environmental hot spots in the Balkans” (1). Although UNEP called for an emergency response, evacuating the area and putting up barriers to prevent inhabitation, the authorities have taken no action, and access to the site is still unrestricted.

Poverty remains a persistent problem in Albania. The country’s 2001 Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy stated that in 1998 nearly half of all Albanians (46.6 percent) were living on less than two dollars a day. One in six (17.4 percent) were living in extreme poverty on less than a dollar a day. Poverty in Albania’s rural regions is twice that of urban areas, and about half of the country’s poor are self-employed in agriculture. Not surprisingly the poor – such as those living at the former Durrës factory – have higher disease rates and lower access to medical services.

There have, however, been some positive developments. In 2001 Albania created its first environment ministry and committed itself to meeting poverty reduction targets and intervening in key hot spots. And the World Bank is considering a project to clean up the Durrës site. With government funds in short supply, the help of the international community means families in Durrës could look forward to a brighter day.

John Bennett

1. Post Conflict Environmental Assessment, Albania, UNEP, 2000.