Heat, smog killing 700 a day in Moscow

MOSCOW — Tatiana Dyment found her mother sitting in the bathtub, the elderly woman's head leaning sideways and cold water from the shower head still streaming down her back.

"She could have been dead from two to three days, doctors suppose," said the 31-year-old psychologist, who had rushed back to Moscow from vacation in Croatia after failing to reach her mother by phone. "The windows in her apartment on the 6th floor were wide open and every piece of furniture in the apartment smelt of burning" from the thick white smoke hanging in the air outside.

Doctors say her mother, Tatiana Belskaya, died of "acute heart insufficiency." Dyment has her own idea of what killed the usually fit 70-year-old woman: "I think this smog from the forest fires killed her."

On Monday, Moscow health authorities announced that the number of deaths per day in the Russian capital had nearly doubled to 700 as the city and most of central Russia entered the seventh week of a heat wave. The high temperatures, hovering around 100 degrees, have destroyed 30 percent of the nation's grain crops and triggered massive peat bog and forest fires that alone have killed more than 50 people and devastated dozens of villages.

Andrei Seltsovsky, chief of the Moscow health department, told a news conference that Moscow morgues were filled almost to their capacity, with 1,300 of the 1,500 slots occupied. He suggested that residents deviate from a Russian Orthodox tradition of holding burials on the third day after death, burying loved ones on the first or second day instead.

"We have no right to insist, as it is a sacred thing," added Seltsovsky.

On Monday, Galina Oprya buried Bronizlav Oprya, her 80-year-old husband, in their town of Istra, about 30 miles northwest of Moscow. Twenty other people were buried during the day at the local cemetery, a record figure since the days of World War II, cemetery officials told Oprya.

Her husband died last Friday of pulmonary edema, according to doctors.

"My husband and I were sitting in the living room when he asked me to open the window, which I had closed because of the smog," said Oprya in a phone interview to the Los Angeles Times. "It was so hot in the room that we couldn't stand it anymore."

Oprya, a 62-year-old bookkeeper, said that for a week she had been trying to buy an air conditioner. She couldn't even find a fan.

After she opened the window, the smoke billowed into the apartment and soon her husband started coughing.

"He died in my arms in a few hours," said Oprya. "Yes, he did smoke a lot but otherwise he was OK and I never expected him to die so fast."

Boris Revich, head of the Moscow-based Laboratory for Environmental Health, an academic research institute, was sharply critical of how Moscow officials had handled the twin crises of high temperatures and fire.

"The civilized world has already long ago formulated a list of urgent and obligatory measures to reduce heat waves' influence on people's health," he said, "from increasing the number of ambulances on duty equipped with all necessary things like bottles of mineral water, for instance, to getting lists of elderly people living alone from social organizations and checking these people out.

"None of it was done," Revich said.

He said the heat and smog were hardest on elderly people and those suffering from lung disorders. "Even after the heat is gone these people will be suffering from the consequences and we will see more and more deaths in the coming weeks," he added.

As the Rosgidromet state weather agency said Monday that air pollution exceeded its normal levels by 1.4 to 2.2 times in different areas of the capital, residents continued to flee the city. All the passenger flights and long-distance trains were booked, though dozens of flights were indefinitely delayed due to the smog.

Some foreign missions were closing down their consular offices and evacuating their staffs. The U.S. Embassy told the Times on Monday that work hours were being cut and time devoted to issuing visas for travel to the United States had been reduced.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu promised Sunday that all the peat bog and forest fires would be extinguished within a week.