NATO’S sustained destruction of Serbian oil dumps and chemical depots has increased fears of an environmental disaster in the Balkans.
In northern Greece, people are stockpiling bottled water and canned food after warnings that the bombardment had released poisonous dioxins into the atmosphere.
‘Many wondered whether the entire province should be evacuated en masse,’ a local TV reporter in Thrace said. Dioxin is the industrialised world’s most toxic product. A carcinogen, it has been linked to foetal death, immune deficiencies and skin diseases, and it can exist in the atmosphere for up to 50 years.
‘When pharmaceutical plants, oil refineries, fertiliser depots and tranformers are bombed you create the conditions for the production of dioxin,’ said Nikos Charalambides at the Athens branch of Greenpeace. ‘Toxic compounds can travel great distances, depending on the prevailing meteorological conditions.’
Fears that the poison had been blown to Greece were given unexpected credence by France, which warned shoppers last week to avoid asparagus – one of Greece’s biggest agricultural exports. The Greek Prime Minister, Costas Simitis, urged Greeks to ignore ‘agricultural competitors taking advantage of the volatile situation in the Balkans’.
With nearly 500,000 tourists having cancelled holidays in northern Greece, the government has acted to dampen speculation by announcing that only a state -appointed Supreme Scientific Council is authorised to speak on the issue.
‘People are frightened, and reasonably so, since dioxin is poisonous, but we are talking about extremely low levels here,’ said the epidemiologist Dimitris Trochopoulos, who heads the council. ‘These levels can only be detected because the analytical equipment is so advanced.’
But a prominent expert on the atmosphere, Professor Spyros Rapsomanikis, argued that dioxins had increased fifteenfold over Thrace.
Another, Professor Christos Zerefos, said toxins appeared to be following an air corridor that could sweep them to Athens and the Peloponnese.
Since the start of the bombing, tests have been conducted at 25 monitoring stations bordering Albania and Macedonia. The latest samples are being studied in Germany, and the results are expected this week. ‘Now that another month has gone by we believe the dioxin measurements are probably much worse,’ said Greenpeace. ‘The government has deliberately played down the amount of atmospheric pollution that has resulted from Nato bombings.’
Professor Nikos Katsaros, head of the Union of Greek Chemists, said an ‘ecological catastrophe’ was taking place in Serbia. Chemists in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania were also deeply concerned.
Since Nato began striking the Serb oil industry, oil slicks as long as 12 miles have been reported in the Danube. Last month Belgrade scientists urged people to stay indoors and avoid eating fish after Nato bombed a combined petrochemicals, fertiliser and refinery complex in Pancevo on the outskirts of the capital.
‘When that happened the Serbs tried to neutralise toxic compounds like hydrofluoric acid by throwing them into the river,’ said Katsaros. ‘That will have destroyed any aquatic life in the Danube for the next 10 years.’