Highly toxic rocket fuel, spewed out by launches at Russia's space base in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, is causing serious illness among people who live nearby, according to an unpublished study reported today in the British science journal Nature.
The study, which has been conducted by a team of Russian scientists but has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, says that levels of endocrine disease and blood disorder in polluted areas are twice the regional average, the report says.
The work, led by epidemiologist Sergey Zykov, focused on children in the Altai Republic, a mountainous region on the southern fringes of Siberia. This area was chosen because of pollution from unburnt fuel, notably hydrazine, which is used to power the early stages of some Russian launchers.
Zykov compared the health records of about 1,000 children in two polluted areas for 1998-2000, comparing them with 330 records from a nearby unpolluted control group.
He concluded that children in the worst-affected areas were up to twice as likely to need medical attention during this time, and needed to be treated twice as long, Nature said.
According to Zykov's calculations, dozens of liters of unburned fuel are sprayed over several square kilometers of land with every launch.
"These propellants are nasty, toxic substances," Nature quoted European Space Agency (ESA) expert Fabio Caramelli as saying.
"A tablespoon of hydrazine in a swimming pool would kill anyone who drank the water," Caramelli said.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome is run by the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos but both NASA and ESA pay to have craft launched from there.
Rosaviakosmos told Nature that it monitored the health of local populations and found no problem with the launches.
Areas where any unburned launch fuel falls are very sparsely populated and, in any case, any ill health there is likely to be due to poor living standards, the agency said.
Epidemiologists outside Russia told Nature that the data was difficult to verify, mainly because of the disorganized state of Kazakhstan's medical records, although the problem of the launch pollution itself deserved international attention.