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Mystery & anger over mass toxic metal poisoning at Russian factory, staff demand answers

Mystery & anger over mass toxic metal poisoning at Russian factory, staff demand answers
More than 20 employees of a Russian aircraft factory have been poisoned with the potentially deadly metal thallium. Symptoms range from vomiting to hair loss to paralysis, and no one knows where the toxin came from.

“That’s all that has been left,” a woman named Inna says on camera as she combs her balding head, with a pile of hair lying on the floor. She lost all of her hair in 12 days, Mash Telegram-channel reported.

The woman is one of more than 20 staff of the Beriev Aircraft Company in the southern city of Taganrog, whose health began rapidly deteriorating at the end of last year. In November, a leading engineer at the factory, Konstantin Kolesnikov, felt a sharp pain in his stomach, and later he could hardly move by himself.

At the beginning of December, several days after the engineer fell ill, office workers at the factory’s accounting and legal departments experienced similar symptoms – pains in the chest, stomach and joints. At first, they thought that they contracted a virus, but more alarming symptoms soon appeared, including severe stomach pain like Kolesnikov had experienced. As the pain intensified and spread, they raised the alarm with the factory’s doctor and were sent to local hospitals.

The first diagnoses – gastritis and osteochondrosis – appeared to be wrong, as the personnel complained of locks of hair falling out. They demanded that toxicology analyses be carried out. The tests revealed that all of the affected victims had a high amount of deadly thallium in their blood. The level of the metal in the chief engineer’s test, who was the first to feel the symptoms, was 150 times higher, according to Kommersant. The man’s heart reportedly temporarily stopped beating while he was in a hospital in the Russian city of Rostov, before he came to Moscow seeking treatment. 

The highly poisonous chemical element, which is to blame for what has happened to the aircraft factory workers, is used in the electronics industry and glass manufacturing, as well as in rat poisons and insecticides. Exposure to thallium results in harmful health effects, including hair loss and damage to the nervous system. Thallium poisoning can also be fatal.

“I have no idea how thallium could enter offices and the entity’s territory. This chemical is not and can’t be [used] in the manufacturing,” Kolesnikov told Kommersant. His wife has launched a petition in an attempt to help him, and has called on authorities to respond to the tragedy. She also posted what appears to be her husband’s blood tests, showing a concentration of thallium at 750 micrograms, with the norm around 5 micrograms. 

The factory employees have been demanding an explanation from the company for months. It has agreed to pay for medication but no money has been received so far, according to one of the victims, Kseniya Sergus. 

Some of the personnel have reportedly been pressurized not to speak about the incident. “While I was in the hospital, ‘well-wishers’ asked my parents to convince me not to ‘make a fuss,’” the chief engineer said.

As the story hit the headlines, the factory’s press service confirmed the poisoning and said that an investigation was ongoing. The company stressed that the metal is not used in the manufacturing processes, and said that nothing threatens its employees’ health.

However, its personnel told local media that the administration believes someone deliberately sneaked the metal inside the building. “The culprit is among the poisoned,” management reportedly said, according to staff cited by local Bloknot news outlet.