World

Russian experts accuse government of failing to address long-term health effects of heat, smog

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian health experts warned Tuesday that unprecedented heat and suffocating smog from wildfires will lead to more suicides, higher rates of alcohol abuse and other problems, and they accused the government of failing to address the long-term health dangers.

The hottest summer since records began 130 years ago has sparked thousands of fires in Russia, mostly in the western part of the country, and smoke from wildfires around Moscow again clouded some parts of the Russian capital, even though firefighters have scored successes in containing the blazes.

The number of deaths recorded in Moscow had doubled to an average of 700 per day during the worst of the scorching heat and smog, city officials said.

Boris Revich, a medical expert at the Moscow-based Institute for Economic Forecasts, said 5,840 more people had died in Moscow in July than during the same month last year. He said the report came from the city registry office, but it did not list ages or causes of death.

"The main reasons seem to be heart and respiratory diseases," Revich said at a news conference Tuesday.

Even though the heat wave was expected to break later in the week, he said long-term health risks remained.

"This heat has affected all organs, including respiratory and endocrine systems, and we should expect more cases of diabetes, suicides, alcohol-related nervous breakdowns," Revich said.

Official data on the number of suicides and medical conditions related to the heat wave are not available yet, he said.

Another expert deplored what he called the lack of long-term emergency planning in health care.

"We never care to work with a future perspective in mind," Alexei Skripkov of the Federal Medical and Biological Agency said. "It's a big systemic mistake."

He said that European nations such as Germany and France were quick to upgrade their health care policies after the unprecedented heat wave in 2003. Russian officials have failed to take similar measures, even though peat bog and forest fires have burned around Moscow in the past.

Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry said that its teams have cut the area covered by fires around Moscow by more than a quarter over the past 24 hours, but 14 forest and peat bog fires are still burning east and southeast of the city.

On Tuesday, large sections of the capital were again cloaked by smog, although the concentration of pollutants remained far below their peak levels earlier this month when smog hung over the city for a week.

Alexei Popikov of the Mosecomonitoring watchdog agency said carbon monoxide levels in the air remained within their maximum safe limit Tuesday, but the amount of hydrocarbons is twice the permissible level. The situation improved with a wind change later in the day.

More than 50 people have died directly in the wildfires across Russia, and more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said Tuesday that more than 166,000 people and 62 firefighting aircraft are battling wildfires across the country. It said the amount of land on fire nationwide has been halved since Monday.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with foreign pilots on Tuesday to thank them for their help and hand out awards. Italy, France and Turkey joined former Soviet republics Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine in sending aircraft and crews, he said, while other countries contributed firefighters and equipment.

"It was particularly nice to see that when misfortune came to our house, we did not have to ask anyone for help or support," he said. "Practically all of our partners responded immediately, showing their solidarity with Russia."

Drought has cost Russia a third of its wheat crop, prompting the government to ban wheat exports through the end of the year in a move that further spiked already soaring world grain prices. The government has promised subsidies to farmers and pledged to protect domestic consumers from unjustified price hikes.

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Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.