Picture this scenario. A rocket lifts off, carrying a cargo destined for Earth orbit. As the rocket heads upwards, it dumps highly toxic fuel onto the land below it. People living below the flight path say the pollution is making them ill, and demand compensation.

In Europe or the United States, this would be headline news. We would expect NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA) to investigate. And should the allegations of ill-health prove correct, national governments would be forced to pay compensation.

For US and European residents, this problem is hypothetical. For the Siberian people who live north of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, it isn't (see page 95). Both ESA and NASA use Baikonur, but neither they nor the Russian administrators of the base seem overly concerned about the population.

The first detailed epidemiological study of people living under the flight path suggests that the rocket fuel is indeed causing health problems. The study has not been peer reviewed, but it is funded by a respected organization. At the very least, it should serve as a warning flag to any agency that uses the base.

Rosaviakosmos, the Russian space agency, says its own studies show that the launches do not cause ill health. But the satellite launching business is highly profitable, so the agency has a clear conflict of interest. ESA and NASA do not run the base but share some responsibility for how it is used. There is a recent analogy here with Western companies who are rightly under pressure to clean up their act in nations where employment law does little to protect workers.

There are currently insufficient data for firm conclusions to be drawn, so Rosaviakosmos should fund a detailed independent investigation, and ESA and NASA should offer to help. All three should commit to making the results publicly available as soon as possible.

If the Western agencies wonder why they need be involved, they should ask themselves what would happen if US or European residents made similar complaints to those emanating from Siberia.