Why Is Kavala Dying?

For the past 30 years, the people of Kavala have been dying of cancer, pulmonary and heart disease 20% faster than the rest of the country.  

By Coral Davenport, Athens News
Reprinted by Permission

THE CITY of Kavala, 120km northeast of Thessaloniki, has the feel of a last outpost in the northern wilds. It rises from a blue harbour, surrounded on all sides by pine-blanketed mountains. But unlike most outpost cities, Kavala has plenty of jobs - it is the most industrial city in the region, home to one of Greece's two phosphate fertiliser plants, a large oil company and a host of fish-processing factories, among others. Cars whiz by the factories on the national road.

A recent controversial study by an atmospheric physicist and Kavala native has stirred the waters in the region. His findings suggest that the local industry, or something else in Kavala's crisp air, may be seriously harming its residents. While few are willing to say exactly what that might be, the concern that something may be wrong with Kavala's air has led to a government-funded scientific investigation, a handful of local studies and two lawsuits, one against the city itself.

In 1999, funded by Xifias, a local fish-processing factory, National Technical University of Athens atmospheric physicist Theophilos Theophanidis conducted a three-week study of atmospheric pollutants in the area. Xifias believed that emissions from nearby oil storage tanks, owned by Revoil, may have been harming their production. Theophanidis, who is also a professor at the University of Montreal, found disturbing results: He reported an average value of 17.56 micrograms per cubic metre of the carcinogen benzene in the air - European Union safety standards say benzene should be no higher than 10 micrograms per cubic metre.

In addition, he reported an average value of 37 micrograms per cubic metre of the carcinogen toluene. The EU does not yet regulate toluene, but scientists say its basic makeup and carcinogenic qualities are similar to benzene's. The two carcinogens are petrol combustion byproducts, common near highways and factories, both of which surround the city.

The Xifias study got Theophanidis thinking. He had noticed for some time that the local annual report of causes of death had included what seemed to him unusually high numbers of deaths from cancers. On his own, he conducted another study. Based on figures obtained from the Greek National Statistical Service, he found that, on average, Kavala today has about a 20 percent higher death rate per thousand people than the national average. Using numbers going back to 1965, he found that until 1972 Kavala death rates were the same as the rest of the country.

After that year, the Kavala death rate began to climb. In addition, he found, by breaking down the causes of death, that Kavala deaths from cancer and cardiac and pulmonary diseases also rose significantly in comparison to the national average.

A view of the city of Kavala from an old castle on one of the surrounding mountains. Scientists say the mountains hold atmospheric pollution in, keeping it from dissipating and possibly harming the city

"This small city has a higher death rate than Athens, the most industrial city in Greece, it doesn't make sense," says Theophanidis' son Michael, a statistician who has worked with his father to compile results.

Looking for the culprits

Theophanidis is convinced there is a link between the carcinogen levels and the increasing death rates. As to the source of the carcinogens, locals and scientists say there are many possible culprits, any of which, if implicated, could have serious financial repercussions on the city. They say one could be Kavala Oil, a refinery which is partially owned by employees, most of whom are Kavala residents. Another could be emissions from cars on the national road trapped between the mountains surrounding the city. There are also industrial garbage dumps, petroleum storage tanks and a phosphate fertiliser plant. The real cause, scientists say, could be a combination of the industries - or none of them.

But local officials and industries are sharply critical of Theophanidis' study, which they say were poorly conducted and caused unnecessary panic.

The prefecture of Kavala monitors atmospheric pollutants and has found nothing worrying, said the prefecture environment official Rosetta Sita. "The measuring stations we have don't show anything worrying. The limits of pollutants are under EU directives," she said.

But while the prefecture's office provided readings of several of its pollutant measurements, which do indeed fall under EU regulations, it says it has not measured either benzene or toluene emissions.

Employees at Kavala Oil, which took an image battering after Theophanidis presented his findings, also criticised his methods. They say he took readings close to areas where emissions were likely to be stronger, but that the gases he found dissipate to safer levels further away.

"I think his report was not correct. I'm not saying what he found was not there, but he made the public panic for no reason," said plant manager Costas Ioannidis.

Heavy smoking taking a toll?

Meanwhile, doctors at the pulmonary diseases wing at Kavala's public hospital declined to comment entirely on the study. Pulmonary specialist Chrysavgi Terrouitou said it would be impossible to draw any conclusions on possible connections between pollution and the disease without a full toxicological study.

But local physician George Kersidis says that based on his personal experience, there's no question that Kavala has a higher-than-usual rate of pulmonary disease. However, he said, the cause is simple: "Kavala has a higher rate of smokers. Those diseases have no connection to anything else," he said.

Theophanidis' findings were enough, however, to convince the public prosecutor's office to file a case against the city relating to high levels of dangerous emissions. The public prosecutor's office did not respond to questions about the specifics of the case.

In addition, Theophanidis' public presentations in Kavala were convincing enough to launch a 3,000-signature petition campaign to the local prefecture's office urging funding for more atmosphere-testing stations.

The petition is no longer necessary, though. Environment ministry officials say the government has just made plans to open an atmosphere-testing station there. The plans weren't necessarily spurred by reports of disease in Kavala, say officials. But they did come out of an EU directive calling for monitors in the most industrial and pollutant-producing cities in the country.

'Worth doing an investigation'

In the meantime, the locals' petition has resulted in prefecture funding a two-year regional atmospheric study from the University of Thrace. Atmospheric chemist Spyridon Rapsomanikis, who is conducting the study, also criticised Theophanidis' methods. He presented results after only three weeks of study, Rapsomanikis said, while in order to provide definitive information the atmosphere must be monitored for two to three years. Nonetheless, in his preliminary studies he said he has found higher-than-safe levels of toluene.

"On three days that we measured, they were higher than acceptable," he said. It is also too early to determine where the chemicals might be coming from, or to draw a direct connection between the chemicals and the disease."

"The effect may be disease, but is the cause benzene and toluene? We cannot say there is a cause and effect without a toxicological study."

The bottom line, however, is that scientists and locals agree that there is cause to look further. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, a toxicology professor at the universities of Athens and Harvard, agreed that based on conducted studies, it is far too early to draw a definitive connection between the chemical emissions and disease rates. But, he said, "I won't dismiss the findings. This does imply that it's worth doing an investigation."