As we’ve been harshly reminded, schools can sometimes be exposed to great danger. The tragedy last month got me thinking about what we are doing in schools in Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan. Although the threat is different, the response is the same – we are working to reduce the risks and make things safer.
Mailuu-Suu was where the Soviet Union mined uranium for the first atomic bomb. Since then, residents have been living with this tragic legacy. Radiation literally flows out of the taps in Mailuu-Suu. But you wouldn’t immediately spot the danger just by looking at the water or the surroundings.
In one school’s neat cafeteria (pictured), where pretty pink curtains frame the windows, and rows of tables are set with lace tablecloths and colorful mugs, children were eating food cooked with contaminated water every day. Overlooking the room, as if to obscure Mailuu-Suu’s position as one of the world’s worst polluted places, is a poster of a pristine lake flanked by lush mountains and trees. Outside, the children were washing their hands and faces, and drinking water filled with radioactive particles out of a tap in the yard. Mailuu-Suu’s schools were preparing these children for a bright future, which they might not have because of the constant, everyday poisoning.
It is a complex problem that cannot be solved quickly. The contamination is everywhere. We had to start somewhere. So what we did was to focus on reducing the risks to the most vulnerable. We began installing water filters in schools and the hospital.
While each filter is supposed to last for 3 years, in Mailuu-Suu they are useless after just 9 months because of the severe levels of contamination. Until the entire community is cleaned up, we will just have to keep replacing these water filters. It is the last line of defense for these children.
It is not the ideal solution but it is working. It is reducing the health risks to these children. There is still much work to do and the threat remains. But we cannot just do nothing and we cannot wait for a perfect solution. We must do what we can to make a difference now. This is true in Mailuu-Suu. And it is true here in the U.S.