ONE hundred and twenty-five miles south of the Arctic circle the first snow falls in early September and can stay until June. The temperature often plummets to -40C. Seven months into the bleak 10-month winter there is little to smile about in Nadvortsy. But the weather is not the reason for the town’s grim expression.
In the environmental wasteland that is the former Soviet Union, few places have been unaffected by the ravages of pollution, from the deserts of Kazakhstan to the vastness of Siberia out to the Far East and up into the Arctic Circle, futuristic horror stories abound. But in Nadvortsy the effects of pollution are especially visible and eerie.
An industrial blunder 30 years ago polluted water so badly that virtually all the 12,000 population suffers from teeth so black it is known as the town that cannot smile.
As directors of the aluminium factory which employs 90% of the town’s working population struggled to meet excessive output demands in the early 1960s they dumped hazardous waste which polluted the town’s lake with a dangerous level of fluoride.
When children allow their guard to drop, their smiles reveal rows of splintered and blackened stumps where milky-white teeth might have been.
Smoke from the aluminium factory settles in a smog over the town, adding to health problems like viral hepatitis as well as liver disease in children, say doctors.
If you are offered food in one of the town’s Soviet-style restaurants it comes with the boast that none of the produce was grown locally. Here the trees are thin and the sky turns grey on the clearest afternoon.
Women can’t even put their washing out. Today the water, which authorities deem safe to drink, runs brown and stinking of sulphur, from taps.
Whereas a small amount of fluoride in water strengthens teeth, excess causes enamel to rot. Children as young as three suffer from the disease known as fluorosis. By the age of 15 teenagers are reluctant to smile – especially in front of strangers – all putting a hand to their face to hide grins.
Children from the town’s only school dream of leaving Nadvortsy but embarrassment about their looks stops them.
Said 15-year-old Xenia: “I don’t want my children to look like me. I don’t want them to be scared to drink the water or scared to breathe. If I visit even a nearby town I am embarrassed about my teeth, people stare. They all ask if I am a very heavy smoker. I want to have my own house and a husband when I grow up, that is my dream, but how likely it is I don’t know.”
Both of Xenia’s younger sisters, Anya, three, and Irina, five, suffer from the disease.
Her parents, like most in Nadvortsy, were sent here to work in the factory when it was built in 1954.
When people first noticed their teeth were turning black almost 20 years ago, Soviet doctors tried to cover up by telling them to stop drinking tea. Even if worried parents did suspect pollution they were too scared to say.
Only now can they describe what really happened. Dr Tatiana Viktorovna, whose sons, aged 14 and 10, both suffer from the disease, said: “Children started to come in with brittle and broken teeth. We didn’t know what it was. They would break off even if the kids ate a peanut. Soon 90% of the town was suffering to some degree. It was only really five years ago, when the Green Party started in Russia that we found out for sure what the cause was.”
Environmental health officer Valentine Kudrastrev, said: “All the trees around the factory died as a result of what went on at the plant. Even if they knew what effect their actions were having they didn’t seem to care.”
Now the factory has started a programme to clean teeth by coating them in plastic. The operation has to be repeated every two years and can be done only when teeth are mature. And, as in Soviet times, children whose parents are well connected at the factory are first in line, leaving children like Xenia to wait.