Deaths double as Moscow smog fails to shift

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The daily mortality rate in Moscow has nearly doubled amid record temperatures, an official said Monday, breaking a silence over the effects of a heatwave and smog which show little sign of abating.

The acknowledgment came after media reports earlier accused authorities of covering up the scale of the disaster that affects millions of Muscovites and forced many to flee the Russian capital.

"In usual times 360-380 people are dying each day. Now it is around 700," said the head of the city's health department, Andrei Seltsovsky, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

"Our mortality rate has doubled," he added, saying that out of 1,500 spaces in city morgues 1,300 places were currently occupied. Officials at the Moscow health department reached by AFP refused to immediately confirm the report.

Amid Russia's worst heatwave in decades, the raging wildfires and burning peat bogs in central Russia have choked Moscow for several days and even sent plumes of smoke as far as neighbouring Finland.

The acrid smog from the fires burning in the countryside dozens of kilometres (miles) outside the city is seeping into apartments, offices and even underground into the Moscow metro, forcing Russians to flee the city.

Many of those who stay pull white and blue gauze masks over their faces to protect themselves from the acrid haze cloaking the city.

Media reports had said well-off Muscovites were spending nights at air-conditioned hotels and accused authorities of covering up the true scale of the environmental disaster and smog-related deaths and illnesses.

A doctor with a Moscow ambulance crew told Russia's top opposition daily Novaya Gazeta on condition of anonymity that the number of ambulance calls and deaths had gone up in recent days.

"We have been strictly forbidden to hospitalize people barring the most extreme cases," he said, complaining of hazardous working conditions.

"There are no air conditioners in vehicles and those that are simply do not work. Temperatures inside reach 50 degrees...Sometimes our doctors faint."

A surgeon at a major hospital described a similar picture, saying the smog and heat were taking their toll on both patients and medical staff.

"Air conditioners work only on the floor of the administration, temperatures reach 30 degrees in the operating room," he told Kommersant on conditions of anonymity. "It's hard to work in these conditions."

Seltsovsky said efforts to store the increased numbers of corpses were being complicated by the desire of many relatives to wait several days before their loved ones are laid to rest.

"This, of course, complicates the situation somewhat," he said.

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 heat.

Officials, meanwhile, say conditions would likely deteriorate later in the day but could improve later this week.

State air pollution monitoring service Mosekomonitoring said carbon monoxide levels in the Moscow air were 2.2 times higher than acceptable levels early Monday.

"We are currently seeing a strong smoke," spokeswoman Elena Lezina told AFP. "Pollution is currently growing."

Carbon monoxide levels had been 3.1 times worse on Sunday and 6.6 times worse on Saturday.

Weather forecasters say shifting winds are expected to help clear the air in the middle of the week, while the heatwave would continue for the next few days and subside by early next week.

Emergency situations minister Sergei Shoigu promised that peat bog fires around Moscow woud be put out in a week.

"Moscow, Muscovites, 11 million are so tired of this smoke, of this smog so we all need to join forces," he said in televised remarks.

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.

© 2010 AFP

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