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Russian Scientist Helps Eliminate Toxic Legacy in Former Soviet Union

When the Soviet Union broke up two decades ago, many former Soviet countries lacked an environmental movement. Russian scientist Olga Speranskaya started researching the harmful effects that huge stockpiles of abandoned industrial chemicals were having in her own country. Her push to inform the public about the dangers of toxic chemicals led to the creation of a powerful environmental advocacy network in 11 former Soviet states.

Olga Speranskaya's initiation into the environmental movement came after she wrote an acclaimed article in 1992 titled, "What Will the Collapse of Communism Do to the Environment?"

Searching for an answer, Speranskaya began gathering scientific data on toxic wastes in agricultural and industrialized cities in Russia, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

"We found out that we really do have severe problems associated with obsolete pesticide stockpiles and other wastes, chemical waste, toxic waste in the country," Speranskaya said.

Throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia there are poor agricultural communities, where dilapidated and abandoned warehouses sit with stockpiles of pesticides and chemicals exposed.

These chemicals evaporate into the air and also get into the ground water.

In one instance, Speranskaya analyzed the level of dioxin contamination of locally produced chicken eggs. The levels turned out to be quite high.

"The level of dioxin contaminate was 14 fold higher than the EU limits. So we got this information because dioxins are considered to be the most dangerous contaminants," she said.

Speranskaya says these organic pollutants can have a significant effect on a person's health, causing birth defects, neurological disorders or problems in the immune system.

"Babies, they start getting their first portion of chemicals in the womb," she adds. "And the second when they start breast feeding."

Through her Moscow-based organization, Eco-Accord, Olga Speranskaya established an international online network with more than 3,000 subscribers to get information out to the public. She says industries in the former Soviet Union do not readily publicize data about the toxins they release into the environment.

Speranskaya received the Goldman Environmental Prize this year for helping to transform many of the region's non-governmental organizations into a powerful force for environmental concerns.

At a Washington reception in her honor, Speranskaya said no one is immune from pollution.

"With more than 70,000 types of products in circulation globally, everybody's affected, regardless of income or position," Speranskaya said. She says she hopes her grassroots work will pave the way for a toxic-free world for future generations.