MEZIBORI, Czechoslovakia -- For years, people thought Milan Stovicek was eccentric. They stared, sometimes they jeered, and once an angry coal miner attacked him.
Mr. Stovicek walked the streets of this smog-choked town wearing a red respirator. He was an exotic, upright bird with a bright beak among a gray and bent population used to conforming to the will of Communist dictators.
More upsetting than Mr. Stovicek's appearance was the message the respirator conveyed: The air in the region was so bad that a young biology teacher in a small town would risk public ridicule to protect his health.
People have stopped staring and jeering.
Now, on mornings when the smog grows thick, 23,000 well-scrubbed little faces head off to school masked by gauze respirators.
The district, called Most, is one of the most heavily polluted regions in Europe. But until recently no one dared say a word about it.
Now, after Czechoslovakia's "velvet revolution," people have developed the courage to talk about the environmental disaster created by four decades of Communist rule and to try to do something about it. But the damage here in northern Bohemia will take years to clean up.
And the economy in Czechoslovakia is so perilously close to collapse that the government does not want to shut down all the brown coal mines, the electric power plants or the chemical plants that belch filth and poisons into the environment.
The mines produce about 70 million tons of brown coal a year -- about 70 percent of all the coal consumed in Czechoslovakia. And the region's half-dozen power plants can generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity, which is nearly 60 percent of the country's electrical capacity.
A chemical plant at Litvinov -- which recently donated the 23,000 respirators to schoolchildren in the district -- was originally opened by the Nazis to convert brown coal to motor fuel. Now it sits on the petroleum pipeline from the Soviet Union and makes kerosene, which is used primarily as jet fuel.
People had become accustomed to the thick smog, to the layers of coal dust, to the pungent smells and to the sour taste of sulfuric acid in the backs of their throats.
It simply was the price of a job.
"There is no point in talking about the pollution," said Frantisek Nekola, an executive with the government-owned North Bohemian Brown Coal Mine Co., which is based in Most. Everyone knows it is there and more or less accepts it as a fact of life, he said.
Mr. Nekola said he came to the polluted region for the job with the coal company. It also was much easier to find an apartment here than in Prague. He lives in Mezibori, and his two sons were taught by Mr. Stovicek.
Mr. Nekola applauds the teacher's effort to help the children. His 12-year-old son has such serious bronchitis that he was sent away for a two-month period of recuperation at a sanatorium in Moravia. But Mr. Nekola does not think of moving.
Others in the area have a similar sort of fatalism toward the pollution.
Eduard Kaftan is only 21 and has been repairing machinery in the strip mines for five years.
He has a simple reason for working there.
"So I don't die of hunger," he said. His father and his grandfather worked in the mines before him.
After work, he spends his evenings in a local restaurant drinking the strong, golden beer for which Czechoslovakia is famous. The waitresses do not take orders. They walk around the room with trays of beer, placing one in front of anyone who needs a refill.
Mr. Kaftan said he feared the mines might close in another five years, although he acknowledges that the environmental damage they cause is severe.
"Just look around," he said.
Some of the damage is visible in the forests and towns. Some -- in the lungs and bones of people -- is less visible.
The pollution has already killed 262 square miles of forest in the Krusne Mountains bordering Germany. The Communists destroyed 37 villages to get at the coal deposits beneath them. They demolished the old city of Most, much of which dated from the 12th century, for a strip mine.
The 500,000 residents of the region, which stretches from Chomutov in the west to Usti in the east, have a life expectancy of 67 years. That's two years less than the other 15 million Czechoslovaks, and four to eight years less than other Europeans.
Children lag a year or two behind children in other regions in
growth because they do not receive enough vitamin D for bone growth. The smog blocks out the sun.
These people also have Czechoslovakia's highest rates of cancer, birth defects, premature births, miscarriages, bronchial illnesses and asthma. The children suffer from breathing problems.
"The illnesses are obviously linked with the high level of pollution," said Dr. Vaclav Mendl, head of pediatrics at the Most regional hospital for 11 years.
The power and chemical plants fill the air with extremely high concentrations of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide.