In Moscow, death rate nearly doubles as forest fires rage on

By Catherine Belton and Isabel Gorst
Monday, August 9, 2010; 2:45 PM

MOSCOW -- The acrid smoke and intense heat enveloping Moscow have nearly doubled the death rate, a senior city health official said Monday as firefighters continued to battle against the raging peat and forest fires that have shrouded the city in choking smog.

The comments by Andrei Seltsovsky, Moscow's health department chief, were the first official confirmation of what many had feared over the weekend as carbon monoxide levels soared to nearly seven times acceptable norms and the country suffers its worst heat wave since records began.

Seltsovsky said the number of people dying daily in the city had risen to 700 from the usual average of between 360 and 380 per day. Heatstroke was the main cause of the sharp spike in deaths. Bronchial problems, heart disease and strokes were also soaring, he said.

"This is no secret," Seltsovsky added. "Everyone thinks we are making secrets out of it. It's 40 degrees on the street. Abroad, people drown . . . and no one asks questions."

Fears of a Soviet-style coverup had mounted over the weekend as the authorities faced growing criticism of their handling of the catastrophic fires that continued to rage across a 170,0000-hectare swath of European Russia.

(Russia bans wheat exports because of fires)

Firefighters have been battling the blazes that have been sweeping through central Russia and the Moscow region driven by scorching heat and drought. Some 52 people have perished in the fires, but fears have been growing of many more deaths as Muscovites face a choking smog containing sky-high carbon monoxide levels and other noxious particles.

One doctor had blogged anonymously over the weekend that he and other medical staff had been threatened with dismissal if they diagnosed illnesses related to the heat and smog, while morgues were overflowing, leaving hospital staff with no option but to pile up bodies in the hospital basement.

A senior Russian health official denied this, and many of the city's morgues contacted by the Financial Times refused to answer any questions. One morgue official, however, admitted that the number of corpses he received on a daily basis had doubled in recent days, with the elderly most affected.

But even as more reports of overflowing morgues surfaced yesterday, Tatyana Golikova, Russia's health minister, questioned Seltsovsky's comments and asked for more data.

Many Muscovites have fled the capital. But most were still holed up in sweltering apartments Monday evening unable to open windows for fear of the smog, which thickened again as the evening set in, ending hopes it was about to lift. Many businesses have sent workers home, urged by health officials to do so to keep people off the streets and reduce their exposure to the smog, while the city's pharmacies have sold out of face masks.

Meteorologists said slight winds were expected to start to lift the smog by Tuesday, and Sergei Shoigu, the emergencies minister, said his firefighters might be able to put out the peat bog fires in the Moscow region in five to seven days.

But meteorologists said the intense heat showed little signs of abating and could continue for most of the month.

Some 400 kilometers east of Moscow, a thick cloud of smoke that has overhung the city of Nizhny Novgorod started to clear Monday, but officials warned of continuing health risks, especially for those suffering from chronic heart, arterial and respiratory disease.

The Nizhny Novgorod region has been one of the areas worst hit by the fires. At least 20 people were killed by blazes that destroyed three villages in the south of the region as the crisis erupted late last month. Local people suspect the final death toll from the disaster may be much higher.

-- Financial Times

Gorst reported from Nizhny Novgorod

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