A decade after communism's fall lifted the veil on industrial pollution in Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, researchers are only now beginning to understand how serious the problem is. Heavy-metal concentrations built up over decades of nonexistent environmental regulation have created an epidemic of ailments, from retarded physical development to respiratory disease. Lead concentrations in kindergarten children in one part of Baia Mare, for example, are four to six times the level known to cause learning impairment. What's more, Baia Mare's dilapidated state-owned smelting and mining facilities continue to spew toxins into an already befouled environment.
Some change, however, may be in the offing. Baia Mare became the target of international scrutiny last year when a local gold-extraction plant spilled lethal cyanide into the Danube River basin, creating ecological havoc 2,000 km downstream to the Black Sea, and government ministers have been under pressure to acknowledge the contamination in their midst. Later this month Romania will host ministers from throughout the region to discuss ways to improve the record, spurred on by the incentive of E.U. membership. But the sheer scale of the degradation is daunting. By one estimate, Romania must spend $20 billion on new infrastructure to meet European environmental norms. And that's $20 billion the government says it doesn't have. "We don't lack the will," says one official in Bucharest. "We lack the money." Residents like Ioan Ghisa, 50, hold out little hope. "We the older generation are finished," says the bulldozer driver and grandfather. "Our bodies are full of pollutants. But the younger ones should have a chance to live a different life."
They should. Though eight years old, Emil Pop weighs just 20 kg, one-third below the average for his age. He suffers from anemia and cramping in his arms and legs, and he has trouble keeping up in school all problems that local doctors attribute to the 290 micrograms/liter lead concentration in his blood. Emil's mother Edit makes sure he doesn't drink the tap water and buys only produce from neighboring Hungary. She obsessively dusts their cramped apartment and spends $40 a month from her meager salary on vitamin supplements, but she relents when it comes to keeping Emil indoors. "I don't have the heart to do it," she says. "He is just a child." The World Health Organization says that lead exposure in Baia Mare is "among the highest ever reported."
At the dimly lit Baia Mare hospital, the consequences of chronic heavy metal exposure are painfully apparent. Between 10% and 12% of babies are born underweight (less than 2.5 kg), compared to 8.7% in Romania as a whole and just 6.2% in Germany. Incidence of chronic bronchitis, pneumonia and "all-day cough" is more than twice the Romanian average. In the community, three-quarters of children suffer from low levels of physical development. Pediatrics chief Gheorghe Gradinaru says the reasons are visible just outside the window. A copper-smelting plant in the eastern part of town, a lead smelter to the northeast and the gold-extraction plant that produced last year's cyanide spill together form "a triangle of death," says Gradinaru. "Everything in the middle is dying."
Things have improved somewhat since the days when acid rains burned holes in women's stockings and apparatchiks switched off local smelters when President Nicolae Ceausescu's motorcade rolled into town so he wouldn't gag on the fumes. Last year's cyanide spill sharpened scrutiny from the European Union, which is working with the government to prepare for membership over the next decade. E.U. officials have put the government on notice, says Ioan Jelev, State Secretary for Environmental Protection, that "without movement on the environment there is no accession." How much movement is the question. The government has passed a clean air act and waste management bill and is considering an emergency clean-up fund, paid for by industry. But enforcement of existing laws is lax, when it occurs at all. The fine for air pollution infractions averages less than $600, or little more than a speeding ticket in Belgium, while overall spending on environmental protection, at .5 % of gdp, is just one-fifth the E.U. norm. Far from cracking down on industry, the government earlier this year laid off nearly a third of the workforce at its already understaffed environmental inspectorates.
Iuliu Chiorean, the new executive director of Aurul, the company that spilled cyanide into the waterways last year, assures visitors that the necessary changes have been made to ensure that accident won't recur. But he complains that other cleanups are a luxury Romania can scarcely afford. "We'll end up dying but eating ecologically safe grass," he says. Acknowledging the dilemma, the E.U. last year began disbursing $150 million annually, though mostly for water treatment elsewhere in Romania. For the children of Baia Mare, however, where the problems are rooted in the earth itself, a safe environment is at best a generation away.