Officially, the ravages of pollution in Eastern Europe were classified information, Communism's dirtiest secret. For more than 40 years, as the devastation mounted, only a few officials kept track of the toll. The people could see, smell and sometimes choke on contaminated air and water. They could watch the grime accumulate on their homes and see the vegetation die. But they could not speak about it or protest too loudly, lest they be harassed as dangerous dissidents.
Only now, as democratic revolutions take hold, is the full extent of Eastern Europe's stunning ecological disaster emerging. Flying over Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany on an otherwise clear day, one can see whole valleys enveloped in a heavy blue haze from the belching smokestacks that disfigure the landscape. Littered across the East bloc, obsolete and unsafe nuclear reactors are decaying, each threatening a reprise of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. The Danube River and Baltic Sea are deadly sumps. Many lakes and streams are fishless, forests are dying, and blackened cities are decorated with pollution-eroded sculpture.
The pervasive grime does more than degrade the quality of life; it cripples and shortens the lives of human beings. Illnesses traceable to pollution consume more than 13% of Hungary's health budget; at least 1 out of 17 Hungarian deaths stems from environmental causes. Around the East German industrial center of Leipzig, life expectancy is six years less than the national average. In the nearby town of Espenhain, 4 out of 5 children develop chronic bronchitis or heart ailments by the age of seven. Children in northern Bohemia, the heart of Czechoslovakia's industrial region, are taken out of the area for up to a month each year as a health measure.
A major source of the pollution is the relentless burning of soft, brown high-sulfur coal, called lignite, which is the basic fuel of the East bloc. On cold winter days in Leipzig, the yellow-brown smog emitted by coal-fired power plants is so thick that drivers are forced to turn on their headlights during the day. In the triangle comprising southern Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, which is covered by a permanent cloud of emissions from factories and power plants, residents complain that the air is so bad that washed clothes turn dirty before they can dry on the line. For miles around the notorious Romanian "black town" of Copsa Mica, the trees and grass are so stained by soot that they look as if they have been soaked in ink. "Even horses can stay here for only a couple of years," says Dr. Alexandru Balin, who works in a local occupational-health clinic. "Then they have to be taken away, or else they will die."
Smoke from burning coal and car exhausts contains carbon monoxide, a host of carcinogens and sulfur dioxide, which helps form the acid rain that is withering Europe's once lush forests. In Poland more than 50,600 hectares (125,000 acres) of woodland have been destroyed, and nearly half the remaining trees are damaged. More than 32,400 hectares (80,000 acres) of Czechoslovakia's forests have been lost.