29 school students and teachers faint one after another in Western Kazakhstan
29 people from Berezovka village school were taken to the village hospital. According to the doctors, the children are agred from 10 to 15.
“We are not talking about any one classroom. Children from different classrooms located at different floors fainted. The remaining students were dismissed from classes and their teachers were calling them every now and then to inquire about their health. As for the children at the hospital, they are in therapy. Their condition is stable. Doctors, sanitary inspectors and environmentalists are inspecting the school. Air sampling has shown no anomalies,” Vice-Akim (Vice-Governor) of Burlinsk District Azamat Safimaliyev said.
On November 28 the Head of Burlinsk Disrtict Hospital Maksot Baicherkeshev said that the children and adults fainted simply because of overwork.
But the children's parents see the root of their problem in a completely different place. "Overwork? What are you talking about? the parents argued, "We are well aware where the problem really comes from. Now we will stop at nothing and will be pushing (against the oilfield) till the end."
The parents said that children had started fainting two days before, on November 26, and that residents of the village that is situated close to Karachaganak oil field started noticing a strong unpleasant smell in the past several days. “We wrote a letter to the Head of the Karachaganak Petroleum Operating asking them to stop polluting the air,” the mother of a 5th grader Yelena Fakhrutdinova said. Her son, too, was hospitalized.
Parents of other school children said that villages, too, had been experiencing unexpected health failures. “We are getting a sudden dizziness or nose bleeding. Weird things are happening here,” one of the villagers said.
The parents immediately waived off the "overwork version" and unanimously pointed at Karachaganak oilfield as the source of the problem.
Describing the situation a teacher of the village school and the father of a seven grader Aleksey Koba said: "Children started to faint one after another that day. But before that day there were several isolated cases of children fainting, too. When the kids fainted they had cramps, very bad cramps that looked like epilepsy. (...) My son is at the hospital, too. He was brought in a very bad condition and put on a drip right away."
The man is sure that the oilfield is to blame: "We have been living here for many years. And we are all well aware of what an oilfield is like, and what re-activating a well is like. We have gas flared all around here. There are so many flares that we don't need streetlights during the night. There has been a strong smell lately, and there were loud pops at the field a couple of days ago. But whatever we say, no one wants to listen to us. Our lives and our children are the most precious things that we have, and when you have a child close to dying in our hands you just don't know what to do. I am very grateful to the doctors for coming so fast and helping us," Aleksey Koba said.
Steve Wright, HSEQ Controller at Karachaganak Petroleum Operating B.V., came to Berezovka village to talk to the local residents later on 28 November.
"It is important for us that everyone is safe at the field and around it. And I hope that you can see by us being here that we are sharing you concern. We have supported this morning with our ambulances as well because we are concerned as well," he said.
"I am a father with three children. Children are the most important thing," Steve Wright continued. But the local residents argued: "Your children are not here, there are in safe location. But our kids are here and they are breathing there toxic gases. We get clouds of blue smoke coming from the field and we have to close our doors and windows and stay inside waiting for it to pass."
"We have had no such cases before," he said about the fainting kids. "The sanitary protection zone is set in accordance with the standards. And concerning the dangerous gases and smells, we have special ecological control posts set all around the field. Their measurements are very precise and their are all functioning," the foreign controller assured the local residents.
The villagers complained to him that something was "burning very badly" at the field on November 27. And the the sanitary protection zone was too thin which put the village in the direct proximity from the field. "Tungush and Berezovka villages were supposed to be relocated started from the second year of the field's operation. But for some reason only the documents for Tungush were made, where as our village is allegedly located far enough from the zone. Three kilometres from the field is a norm, they told us. How can this be normal? The air (vapours and gases) is carried five and even six kilometres," the people complained.
Deputy head of Ecology Department of Western Kazakhstan Oblast Yerlan Saparov also said that ecological situation in the region was normal: "Our inspectors visited Karachaganak Petroleum Operating B.V. on November 28. No violations of the sanitary-protection norms was found. Data from the ecological monitoring stations located in the village did not show any anomalies either," he said.
However, days later doctors confirmed that toxic substances caused the condition. "We confirm, that the children were exposed to toxic substances. The official statement will be released later, but according to preliminary conclusions, there was an exposure to an unidentified toxic substance that had a selective effect on the central nervous system," Deputy Head of the region's Healthcare Department Manshuk Aimurzieva said.
Most of the children and teachers were discharged from the hospital the same day, on November 28. After some initial treatment most of the kids said they were fine and just had a slight headache.
But four of the children stayed in Burlinsk hospital for additional medial tests. And six of the children were transferred to Uralsk Children's Hospital on November 29. But Vice-Akim Safimaliyev insisted that the transfer to the bigger and better equipped hospital had nothing to do with complications from the fainting incident. "These children required additional medial examination, because they had background diseases - respiratory disease and colds," the official said.
Four out of the six have already got their diagnoses: "One of the children has anemia of average severity, another child was diagnosed with epilepsy. One school boy has a brain injury and one of the kids has diencephalic syndrome," the region's healthcare department said.
On November 29, during a meeting with the Akim (Governor) of Western Kazakhstan Oblast Nurlan Nogayev, residents of Berezovka village requested relocation of the village to a safer location. The Governor answered that he understood the concerns of the villages and said: "I think we will fund a solution that will satisfy both sides."
After that, the villagers gathered signatures and submitted a letter to the President of Kazakhstan, asking for a relocation of the village away from the oilfield. They said they feared for the lives of their children. There are 400 households with 1500 people in Berezovka village.
By Tatyana Kuzmina (Gyuzel Kamalova contriibuted to the story)