Moscow deaths double in Russia's 'worst ever' heat
The daily mortality rate in Moscow has doubled and morgues are overflowing amid an acrid smog caused by the worst heatwave in Russia's thousand-year history, officials said Monday.
The acknowledgment, which broke days of official silence on the toll, came after media reports accused authorities of covering up the scale of the disaster that has forced many Muscovities to flee the Russian capital.
The smog from the peat and forest fires burning in the countryside around 100 kilometres (60 miles) outside the city has choked Moscow for days and has been seeping into apartments, offices and even underground into the metro.
Emergency services battled to put out over 170,000 hectares of wildfires in central Russia and the Moscow region, as fires also raged close to a nuclear reprocessing site.
"In usual times 360-380 people are dying each day. Now it is around 700," the head of Moscow's health department, Andrei Seltsovsky, said in televised remarks, acknowledging that city morgues were filled almost to capacity.
By Monday afternoon, the air in the city showed signs of improving but television reports said the smoke reached Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg and the Urals main city of Yekaterinburg was also veiled in smog.
Russia's top meteorological official, Alexander Frolov, said the heatwave was the most severe in the country's millenium-long history
"No similar heatwave has been observed neither by ourselves nor by our ancestors," he told a televised news conference. "This is a completely unique phenomenon."
More than 104,000 passengers -- a record number for the current year -- flew out of Moscow on Sunday, a spokesman for Russian state aviation agency Rosaviatsia, Sergei Izvolsky, told AFP.
The figure for the same day a year ago stood at around 70,000 people, he said.
Many of those who stay pull white and blue gauze masks over their faces to protect themselves from the haze cloaking the city.
National media accused authorities of covering up the true scale of the environmental disaster and related deaths.
Many Muscovites laid the blame for the environmental catastrophe on the government, which they say is not doing enough to shield them from the smog, and bloggers share survival tips ranging from producing oxygen at home to sleeping on the balcony.
"I don't know how long we will last," pensioner Rimma Zgal told AFP. "It's impossible to sleep at night."
Weather forecasters say the heatwave in Moscow would continue for the next few days and subside by early next week.
State air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring said earlier Monday carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were 2.2 times higher than acceptable levels.
Carbon monoxide levels had been 3.1 times worse on Sunday and 6.6 times worse on Saturday.
Russian authorities declared a state of emergency in the Urals town of Ozersk, home to major nuclear reprocessing plant Mayak, due to wildfires burning in the region.
They have also been working to put out fires close to Snezhinsk, another town in the Urals and home to of one of Russia's centres for its nuclear research programme. Officials said this fire had been localised.
Some 557 wildfires were still covering 174,000 hectares (430,000 acres) of land in Russia, only a slight improvement from the weekend, the emergency situations ministry said.
A group of leading Russian human rights activists led by veteran campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva meanwhile urged President Dmitry Medvedev to accept more help from abroad to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe".
"It is clear that the current system cannot cope with the emergency situation in the country," they said in an open letter.
© 2010 AFP