Extreme heat-wave and wildfires cause public health concerns in the Russian Federation

Wildfires that started in mid-July 2010 in the Central and Volga federal districts of the Russian Federation have produced a dense plume of smoke over hundreds of kilometres, a situation aggravated by the continuing heat-wave. According to the Ministry of Health and Social Development of the Russian Federation, on 11 August 2010 fires were active in 22 regions of the country, had killed 53 people and had caused particularly difficult situations in the Belgorod, Voronezh, Ivanovo, Lipetsk, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Ryazan and Tambov regions and in Mordovia and Chuvashia.

Close to the fires, smoke is a health risk because it contains small particles that can irritate the eyes and respiratory system and hazardous gases. Data from parts of the Moscow city air quality monitoring network in early August indicate that particulate matter (PM10) levels significantly exceed safe levels indicated in the WHO guidelines for outdoor and indoor air quality. Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian Agency for Consumer Rights and Human Well-being, warns that there is a significant excess of pollutants in the air, such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, in several regions.

Elderly people, people with cardiorespiratory diseases or who are chronically sick, children and outdoor workers are particularly vulnerable to the combined effects of heat-waves and air pollution.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe has been in contact with the authorities in the Russian Federation, including the Ministry of Health and Social Development, to offer technical assistance. In addition, the Office has prepared public health advice that describes the possible health effects of wildfire smoke and heat-waves and key ways for people to protect themselves and others.

On a smaller scale, wildfires and extreme heat conditions continue also in other countries of the WHO European Region, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Romania, Greece, Portugal and others. However, WHO is continuously monitoring and performing risk assessment of the ongoing situation with wildfires and the heat-wave in the Russian Federation and for the time being the current situation does not represent a significant risk of international impact.

Moreover, WHO has received a formal communication from the Federal Atomic Energy Agency of the Russian Federation, through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, stating that there is no risk of radioactive pollution due to wildfires, either in forests affected by the Chernobyl accident twenty-four years ago or from any nuclear installations and waste repositories.