It sounds like a scene from a horror film. Earlier last year, a tiny village in Kazakhstan was hit with a mysterious “sleeping sickness.” Residents were falling asleep at random; they were passing out while walking, in school and even on their motorcycles. Some fell asleep for up to six days at a time and when they woke up they couldn’t remember what happened. Others suffered from hallucinations, fatigue and headaches. But what was making residents in the town sporadically fall asleep?
The sleeping sickness first hit the town in March 2013. Researchers – including sleep disorder experts – who went to investigate were left stumped at what was causing the mysterious illness. Now, government officials announce that the nearby uranium mines are to blame. The mines, which were closed shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, are thought to be the cause of heightened levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in the air.
“The uranium mines were closed at some point, and at times a concentration of carbon monoxide occurs there,” said Kazakhstan’s deputy PM Berdibek Saparbaev, according to The Guardian. “The oxygen in the air is reduced accordingly, which is the real reason for the sleeping sickness in these villages.”
Mystery solved? Not exactly. While it’s possible that carbon monoxide is the culprit of this weird phenomenon, some researchers aren’t entirely convinced.
Claude Piantadosi, a pulmonologist at Duke University Medical Center, told Wired that while “the symptoms fit,” they “are not specific and that’s the problem.” He explains that while carbon monoxide is able to make someone unconscious, it’s a byproduct of combustion. So, why would the uranium mine – that is inactive – be releasing carbon monoxide? Not to mention, authorities previously tested for elevated carbon monoxide and later ruled it out.
Piantadosi suggests other gasses, like carbon dioxide, may have contributed to the sleeping sickness. While many continue to speculate on the exact cause, the authorities have decided to evacuate residents in the two villages, which is causing its own headache as some residents are reluctant to leave their homes.