Professor Onur Hamzaoğlu could face jail time for publishing a report that found poisonous metals in the systems of Turkish townsfolk. But he is “not afraid,” he tells Green Prophet in an exclusive interview.
Earlier this week, officials from the Turkish province of Kocaeli filed a complaint against Onur Hamzaoğlu for inciting “fear and panic” amongst locals. Hamzaoğlu had indeed published something fearful and alarming: a study showing high levels of heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury, and lead, in samples of infant feces and mother’s milk from the town of Dilovası.
According to the abstract of the study, it aimed to measure the levels of heavy metals in the population and figure out how it could affect the DNA of newborns.
But as reward for bringing this disturbing information to light, Hamzaoğlu is now being investigated by his employer, Kocaeli University. He could also face a court hearing, and a sentence of several years in prison, if the university decides to turn his case over to the public prosecutor.
“Politicians of local governments and the Council of Higher Education (YOK) [put] pressure on the universities” in Turkey, Hamzaoğlu tells Green Prophet. He acknowledges that Turkey’s treatment of scientists who publish disturbing findings casts it in a negative light, particularly in the context of the European Union, which Turkey’s leaders – publicly, at least – say they hope to join.
While most European countries are trying to move away from dirty industries and seek cleaner forms of energy and fuel, Hamzaoğlu says Turkey is “moving to high pollution factories, such as… cement, paint, and iron and steel.”
Turkey’s manufacturing industry
Dilovası is a stark illustration of this. According to Hamzaoğlu, the province of Kocaeli has been the site of 15 percent of Turkey’s cumulative manufacturing industry over the past decade. The main sectors include chemical products, metal products, and basic metals, so it’s little surprise that traces of these are showing up in the air of the region and the bodies of its residents.
Two highways pass through Dilovası itself, and the center of the town is an official industrial zone comprising 174 companies. Thirteen percent of the firms in Dilovası operate metal factories, and 11 percent are within the paint and chemical sectors.
“In summary, the problems are happening in front of everyone’s eyes,” says Hamzaoğlu.
In the nearby town of Kandıra, where there is practically no industrial activity, cancer rates are far lower than in Dilovası, according to Hamzaoğlu’s report.
Mother’s milk laced with mercury, lead, coppper
Hamzaoğlu is head of the public health department at Kocaeli University. Therefore, he says, “my basic task is to determine [the] health problems of populations and reasons of the problems, and produce solutions.”
That’s why he looked at samples of the purest, most basic fluids that come from babies and mothers: infant meconium, or the earliest stool of an infant, and colostrum, the concentrated milk rich in antibodies that mothers produce until their children are at least a few days old.
In addition to arsenic, mercury, and lead, Hamzaoğlu found trace amounts of copper, aluminum, zinc, cadmium, and iron in the samples.
Kocaeli University will likely hand down a decision on Hamzaoğlu’s case in the next few months. If the university chooses to turn his case over to the public prosecutor, he will face more investigations and a possible prison term of two to four years.
Read more about Hamzaoğlu and environmental hazards in the Middle East: