Moscow smog and nationwide heat wave claim thousands of lives

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 10 August 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4360
  1. Andrew Osborn
  1. 1Moscow

    An unprecedented heat wave, combined with a deadly outbreak of fierce forest fires, has sparked a public health crisis in Moscow, the Russian capital, where the daily death rate has doubled in recent weeks.

    At least 52 people across Russia have died in the fires, and Moscow has been shrouded in a thick layer of smog, caused by scores of forest and peat bog fires ringing the Russian capital, which has made being outdoors hazardous.

    Carbon monoxide levels have, at times, exceeded the acceptable level by almost seven times. City residents have complained of breathing difficulties, stinging eyes, and severe depression.

    The authorities have not released figures on how many people have died as a result of the unusual climactic conditions. But the head of the city’s health department, Andrei Seltsovsky, said on state television earlier this week, “In normal times 360 to 380 people die each day; now it is around 700.”

    The city’s morgues, which can take around 1500 bodies at any one time, are nearly full, with at least 1300 places currently filled. Many of Moscow’s 11 million inhabitants have fled the city, and 104 000 left last Sunday alone. Gennady Onishchenko, chief sanitary inspector and Russia’s most senior doctor, has urged employers to grant employees leave from work. But there is scant evidence that his advice is being heeded.

    Otherwise, advice to Muscovites has been rudimentary. Officials have urged people to stay at home and keep the windows closed, despite the record temperatures. Pregnant women, small children, and elderly people have been advised to leave the city and head for less polluted areas if they can.

    Several officials have told people they should wear masks to prevent harmful particles in the smog penetrating their lungs. But few citizens have been able to get their hands on the kind of masks―used in the construction industry―that afford a measure of protection, and most have had to settle for surgical masks, which are not thought to be effective.

    The heat wave, which began in mid-June, bringing the highest temperatures since records began 130 years ago, proved deadly even before the smog set in.

    Desperate to escape the heat millions of Russians rushed to cool off in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs around the country. But many of these places were not safe to swim in, and more than 2000 people have drowned since June, many after consuming large quantities of alcohol before taking to the water. Doctors have repeatedly told people to drink only water in the heat, but many have sought instead to quench their thirst with beer and vodka.

    Some officials estimate that the heat wave may have claimed as many as 5000 lives, prompting Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, to describe this summer as “a natural disaster.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4360

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