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New study examines toxins in Ukraine's Kakhovka sediments

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Czech and Ukrainian experts have analysed a set of samples of the sediments taken from the bottom of the

orizhzhia region of Ukraine, which is now empty following the destruction of the dam by the Russian army last year. They found alarming levels of DDT and other toxins on a public beach. The sampling is part of a long-lasting programme Clean Air for Ukraine and was conducted within a collaboration of the Ukrainian civic organizations, the NGO Arnika (Czech Republic), and the Czech company Dekonta to help Ukraine ensure a safer environment for the public.

The researchers analysed seven samples: five from the Dnipro River and two from craters left by Russian S-300 rocket fire. [1] By far the worst results came from an examination of an area previously covered by water, directly at the central city beach in Zaporizhzhia: a place used by the local population for relaxation, where only a water withdrawal revealed, for example, large sewage pipes. There is a strong suspicion that a number of local enterprises are illegally connected to the sewerage system, so it is impossible to know exactly what is flowing and where it is coming from.

Among other toxins - such as arsenic, mercury or chromium - the laboratory analyses have shown a high presence of banned and dangerous pesticide DDT. [2] It was accompanied by relatively lower levels of another harmful insecticide, HCH. It is suspected that the sediments have accumulated these toxic substances during the long years of dam operation, especially during the Soviet agricultural era. But the researchers point out the need to determine a specific source.

"Such high level of pollution in the place of recreation of people is a serious concern. The concentrations of DDT and HCH suggest the proximity of a heavily contaminated site, such as an obsolete pesticide dump. We do not want to cause a panic, but we need to inform the local people and identify the source. It would be very dangerous if the toxins entered the food chain, or if, for example, people took the sediment into their gardens and grew vegetables on it. By entering food chain, DDT can be deposited in the human body and cause adverse health effects," says Olexiy Angurets, expert on ecology and sustainable development of the Clean Air for Ukraine campaign, which is run in partnership with Arnika .

Samples taken from the beach in Zaporizhzhia showed extreme levels of several other dangerous pollutants. In the case of the potent carcinogen and mutagen benzo(a)pyrene, the levels indicating a need for decontamination, as established in the Czech Republic, were exceeded more than 2300 times. A suspected carcinogen, benz(a)anthracene, was found in a concentration more than 500 times above a set threshold. Analyses also revealed significant pollution by mineral oils, generally associated with heavy industry or refineries.

The second most polluted site was identified at the confluence of the rivers Sukha Moskovka and Dnipro in Zaporizhzhia city. The sediments are heavily contaminated with heavy metals, especially arsenic, manganese and chromium. The cause is probably different from that of the "DDT Beach" and is attributable to the fact that industrial plants discharge wastewater into the creek, making its water reddish-brown and highly mineralised.

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“ The war is exacerbating the effects of old ecological burdens and multiplying previously created ecological risks. But out results also confirm that for the remediation of historical ecological burdens must be an important part of a discussion about the post-war recovery plans. It suggests that once Ukraine has fended off the threat of Russian missiles and invasion as such, we need to talk about how to ensure that its people are protected from the invisible but all the more insidious threat of toxic agents. We are honoured to be able to help Ukrainian civil society do this,” concludes Marcela Černochová, coordinator of the Arnika’s projects in Ukraine.

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam on 6 June 2023 was one of the most striking examples of environmental damage caused by the Russian invasion to Ukraine. The breach led to widespread flooding of farmland and settlements. The area of the former reservoir itself has been largely drained, exposing nearly 2,000 square kilometres of the former lakebed.

The publication of the study is part of a long-term collaboration between the Czech-based NGO Arnika and Ukrainian partner organisations Free Arduino (Ivano-Frankivsk) and Green World (Dnipro) that has been taking place in different parts of Ukraine since 2017. The programme Clean Air for Ukraine has mainly focused on campaigning for stricter regulation of industrial air pollution, but since the Russian aggression in February 2022, it has also started dealing with environmental damage caused by the war and protection of the population from new threats.
The research was carried out with the financial support of the Transition Promotion Program of the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic and the Government of Sweden.

Notes

[1] - Five sediment samples from the river Dnipro and two soil samples from the Russian S-300 system’s missiles impact craters were analysed for a presence of the following substances: heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), non-polar extractable compounds (NECs), hydrocarbons C10 – C40, cyanides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), hexachlorobenzene (HCB), pentachlorobenzene (PeCB), hexachlorobutadiene (HCBD), organochlorine pesticide residues (OCPs), brominated flame retardants (BFRs), dechlorane plus (DP), polychlorinated naphthalenes (PCNs), poly- and perfluoroalkylated substances (PFASs), short and medium chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs and MCCPs) and dioxins (PCDD/Fs) and dioxin-like PCBs (dl PCBs) by DR CALUX bioassay.

[2] - DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and its various related compounds were once an influential insecticide, widely used in agriculture and for the control of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. However, its serious effects on the neurological, reproductive, immunological and hepatic systems of humans and the reproduction of birds, for example, and its tendency to accumulate in the soil for decades (and/or to break down into substances as toxic as the original pesticide) have led to its use being severely restricted. High levels of DDT are still found in the vicinity of DDT production sites, obsolete pesticide stockpiles and dump sites - particularly in post-Soviet countries, including Ukraine.

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