Toxic heavy metals were found near people’s houses in Northern Armenia. The local industry is to blame, Czech scientists say

Alaverdi copper smelting plant fuming over the town of 11,000 inhabitants
PHOTO: Martin Holzknecht / Arnika

The vicinity of mining and metallurgical enterprises in Lori Province, Armenia, is likely to be contaminated with dangerous chemicals, mainly copper, exceeding legal standards and hygienic norms. Local hotspots that have a direct impact on environmental pollution are located either in close proximity to the urban areas or directly within them. The samples from the River Debed contained the highest levels of toxic metals, potentially affecting the people farming alongside the riverbank, experts from the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague have said. Local and foreign organizations are calling for rigorous action on the part of governmental bodies.

The copper smelter in Alaverdi, the mine and tailing pond in Teghut, and several tailing ponds around the town of Akhtala – those are the largest industrial sites of the Lori region and according to the latest research, also the cause of the presence of copper, zinc, molybdenum, lead, and arsenic in the neighbouring environment.

The copper levels found in sediments extracted from the River Debed show a rapid increase in samples extracted just below the industrial sites exceeding the background levels as much as a hundred times. [1]

“The sudden elevation of those values proves the direct influence of the local mining or metallurgical activities on the pollution of the environment by heavy metals,” explains Ing. Marek Šír, PhD., co-author of the research funded by the Transition Promotion Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

“However, even less contaminated water may cause health problems to anyone who gets exposed for a longer period of time, for example by showering or through farming. Copper, in such case, mainly has a negative effect on the liver and kidneys,” the expert from the University of Chemistry and Technology remarks.

Toxic eggs and playgrounds
The impact on human health was also analysed through sampling the human hair of local inhabitants, free-range hens’ eggs, and children’s sandpits. Half of the playgrounds that were examined showed considerable heavy metal pollution, and children are noticeably highly sensitive and vulnerable to such chemicals. A disturbing concentration of copper was also found in a few samples of hair from the people living in an area famous for its UNESCO-listed monasteries.

Speaking about the eggs, Jitka Straková, an expert on toxic chemicals from the Czech NGO Arnika, notes: “In Alaverdi, the detected levels of dioxins exceed both European and Armenian standards, in some cases as much as over five times.” As the egg samples suggest, the industrial pollution also affects the food chain and causes considerable danger posed by dioxin-like compounds. “Just by eating an average amount of eggs typical for the Armenian population, people are already exceeding the tolerable daily dose of dioxins set by the European Food Safety Authority,” Straková adds.

The research results were eagerly anticipated by the locals, Armenian environmentalists say. “We finally have hard scientific data to prove that people’s health is being harmed by the industry as a result of insufficient protection by the legislation and local authorities,” summarizes Dr. Elena Manvelyan, the Head of the NGO Armenian Women for Health and Healthy Environment. ”The responsible authorities have to take immediate and appropriate steps to stop this poisoning,” Manvelyan appeals.

However, the solution might be hard to draw since operations in both Alaverdi and Teghut were recently shut down for business, Ecolur’s president Inga Zarafyan points out. The Russian VTB Bank launched a 'Property vs. Debt' process in September-October in two companies of the Vallex Group - 'Teghout' CJSC and 'Armenian Copper Programme' CJSC, the owner of the Alaverdi Copper Smelter.

The research was carried out by the laboratories of the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague as part of a project of the environmental organizations Arnika from the Czech Republic and the Yerevan-based Armenian Women for Health and a Healthy Environment, with support from the Ecolur informational portal and the Transition Promotion Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

Remarks for editors

Read the quoted reports:
- Heavy metals in the surrounding of mining and metallurgic sites in Lori region in Armenia:
- Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in Chicken Eggs from Alaverdi, Armenia:

See a gallery of photos from the sampling:

[1] The copper level found in sediments extracted from the River Debed below the Alaverdi factory is thirty-one-times higher (2,200 mg/kg) than that detected above the town. The slowly decreasing figures further downstream are then interrupted by the tributary creeks running from mining areas – the River Shnogh, polluted by the waste from the exploitation of the Teghut mine and the River Akhtala, polluted by the local waste ore dressing plant, in which the highest measured levels were found – over 7,000 mg/kg – exceeding the pre-Alaverdi numbers as much as a  hundred times. The River Debed flows through the whole region from the South-West and over the border to Georgia. Along its 152 kilometres in Armenia, it is used by local farmers for their gardens and orchards.

International activities