x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Turkey clears village after lung cancer deaths

An asbestos-like mineral is blamed for the high number of mesothelioma deaths in Tuzkoy, a town of 2,300 people in the central Anatolian region of Cappadocia.

Farmers feed their cows in front of an abandoned house in Tuzkoy. Plans call for buildings to be flattened and a two-metre layer of clean soil to be laid.
Burhan Ozbilici / AP
Farmers feed their cows in front of an abandoned house in Tuzkoy. Plans call for buildings to be flattened and a two-metre layer of clean soil to be laid. Burhan Ozbilici / AP

ISTANBUL // It has become known as the "cancer village".

Tuzkoy, a town of 2,300 people in the central Anatolian region of Cappadocia, known for spectacular rock formations and underground cave churches, has gained notoriety in Turkey for high death rates that are blamed on carcinoegenic minerals. Authorities have begun to move the population to a new settlement, which is being erected four kilometres from Tuzkoy.

Every year, an average of 35 to 40 people in Tuzkoy die of mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, Umit Balak, the town's mayor, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "That is about half the total number of deaths in the village."

Tuzkoy - where the cemetery is now full, according to the mayor - has become known as the "cancer village" in the Turkish press. "In this village, everybody has cancer", ran a typical headline last month. Mr Balak conceded he was concerned about his own health as well. "Of course I am afraid," he said. "How should I not be?"

Experts say the mineral erionite, which is similar to asbestos and abundant in Cappadocia, is the cause of the high cancer rate in Tuzkoy. The mineral is found close to the surface in the region around Tuzkoy and in stones used in the construction of homes in the farming village.

Two other smaller villages near Tuzkoy, Karain and Sarihidir, have also been affected by the danger posed by erionite. Sarihidir has already been evacuated, and 90 families in Karain are waiting to move, Mr Balak said.

"Because of the erionite and asbestos in the ground, the rate of lung cancer in central Anatolia is much higher than the world average," Turkey's health ministry said on its website. Murat Tuncer, head of the department for cancer prevention at the ministry, has said the rate of mesothelioma in Tuzkoy is 600 to 800 times the global average.

Although the problem is especially acute around Tuzkoy, authorities say the ground in other regions of Turkey also contains high concentrations of dangerous minerals. About one million of Turkey's 70 million people are exposed to asbestos-like carcinogenic substances in the ground around them, Prof Tuncer said earlier this year.

Health officials have been investigating whether another village, Buyuktatli, in the south-eastern province of Kahramanmaras, should also be abandoned because of a high concentration of asbestos. Prof Tuncer said the inhabitants of Buyuktatli may also have to be moved to a new location.

In Tuzkoy, that process is well underway. Two-hundred and fourty-five families from the village have moved to the new settlement, according to Mr Balak.

Next year, 188 new houses are expected to be finished in the new village, which is yet to be named. A school building and a health centre have already been built in the new settlement, Mr Balak said. Recent television images showed tidy rows of new houses with newly planted trees and well paved streets - a marked difference from the mud streets and the old houses of Tuzkoy.

"There is no doubt about the science," Mr Balak said, referring to the reasons for the evacuation. He added that it is "clear" that the village will have to be abandoned. Once all the villagers have left Tuzkoy, the houses there will be torn down. An area of 100,000 square metres in the village will be covered with a two-metre layer of uncontaminated soil. Mr Balak said he hopes the village will be completely evacuated by the end of next year.

Even though the danger is well-known, Mr Balak is now facing problems with the evacuation of some Tuzkoy residents. "Many people here simply cannot afford to move. They are poor," he said. Negotiations with the government in Ankara about financial support are under way.

Poverty is not the only reason some people are reluctant to leave. According to reports in the Turkish press, some inhabitants who own larger houses, cattle and a sizeable piece of land in Tuzkoy are refusing to go because they are concerned that they will suffer financial losses if they move to the new settlement.

"We are trying to convince them," said Mr Balak. When a group of deputies from the Turkish parliament visited Tuzkoy and Karain last month, they were met by several villagers who either denied that there was any danger or argued that the high cancer rates were not caused by erionite but by stress, local media reported.

However, Kemalettin Aydin, the leader of the parliamentary delegation, told a press conference at the end of the visit that there was no alternative to evacuation. "We want a healthy community, we want to prevent premature deaths," he said.

Mr Balak rejected criticism voiced in Turkish news reports about delays in the evacuation process, which is still unfinished even though Tuzkoy was officially declared a disaster zone in 2004. "Well, we have built several hundred new houses since then," he said.