Smog from peat fires around the city of Moscow has reached ten times above safe levels and is likely to kill hundreds of people, according to news reports issued earlier on Wednesday.

Shrouding the spires of the Kremlin and onion domes of churches, and smelling sharply of cinder, the smog cloud has crept through doors and windows into Moscow’s homes, restaurants and offices.

Alexei Popikov, a chief specialist from government agency Mosekomonitoring that measures air pollution in Russia’s capital, said that late on Tuesday, the concentration of carbon monoxide and particles suspended in the air in and around the city surged higher than ten times above the safety limit.

He told Reuters that people with heart disease and the elderly should try not to come into contact with the smog.

Moscow and much of central European Russia from the Baltic to the Pacific has been in the grip of a heatwave since June, causing temperatures to soar to a record high of 37.4 degrees Celsius (99.3 degrees Fahrenheit) on Monday, and sparking off peat and forest fires in the countryside.

Another government official said fire crews had put out over 40 fires in 24 hours but that more were expected to erupt because the weather was still so hot.

AFP reported that Russia’s chief lung doctor, Alexander Chuchalin, said on state television that inhaling the toxins in the smog was as harmful as smoking two packets of cigarettes in a few hours and that people should avoid going out if they can, and if they can’t they should wear masks on the streets.

“It’s a high concentration. Under such concentrations, chronic illnesses can develop,” he said, recommending that people also change their clothes every day and take antioxidants like vitamin E.

Boris Gromov, chief of the Moscow region, has asked Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to set aside 25 billion roubles (827 million dollars) to help fight the fires.

Internationally renowned biologist and leader of Russia’s Green Party, Alexei Yablokov, said that the region is likely to see hundreds more people die than usual because of the smog, reported BBC News.

Dmitry Kiktev from the Roshydromet meteorological service said they were expecting the smog to start clearing late on Thursday, when an atmospheric front moving from the west is expected to bring rain; the temperature should also drop a few degrees over the weekend, he added.

As much as 20 per cent of all Russia’s arable land has been destroyed in the heatwave, which has also claimed the lives of hundreds of people who drowned trying to cool off, reported AFP.

Source: Reuters (Moscow Times), AFP, BBC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD