Pavel Golovkin  /  AP
Young American tourists, no name or details given, brave the thick blanket of smog covering Moscow as they visit the Red Square on Sunday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/9/2010 6:23:38 PM ET 2010-08-09T22:23:38

Muscovites are dying from extreme heat and smoke faster than their bodies can be stored, cremated or buried, and Russians are worried the death toll could be far higher than the official count.

Morgues are overflowing and one crematorium in the Russian capital is working around the clock in three shifts, according to staff, even as the health ministry disputes a senior doctor's statement that the monthly death toll doubled in July.

In Mitino on Moscow's northwest, a note at a crematorium warned that it was not accepting any new orders for cremation.

The crematorium's four furnaces are currently "processing" 49 bodies per day, with cremations every 20 minutes, according to a timetable available at the reception.

"Furnaces overheat in these temperatures, and we have to cool them," Vladimir, a security guard, told Reuters. "In practice, there are up to 80-90 cremations per day, and the crematorium's teams work in three shifts day and night to cope."

The Khimkinskoye cemetery in northern Moscow was packed with funeral buses, with a dozen burial ceremonies taking place.

"Since this heat nightmare started ... there has been a drastic increase in funerals over the past two months, two or three times above the average," a cemetery worker said.

As the scorching heat sets new temperature records almost daily and a thick acrid smog from forest fires chokes the giant city of over 10 million, the question of the real number of heat-induced deaths has become a political issue for Muscovites.

Official data show at least 52 people have died in severe fires raging in parts of European Russia in the past few weeks.

But there are no statistics referring to Moscow, amid some media reports that the city's paramedics are told not to include "heat stroke" in death records "to avoid panic."

Deaths double?

But the head of the city's health department Andrei Seltsovsky said Monday that deaths had almost doubled to 700 daily, with heat being the main killer.

"The average death rate in the city during normal times is between 360 and 380 people per day. Today, we are around 700," Seltsovsky told a city government meeting.

He said heat stroke was the main cause of the recent increase in deaths. Ambulance dispatches in Moscow were up by about a quarter to 10,000 a day and problems linked to heart disease, bronchial asthma and strokes had increased, he said.

The Health Ministry criticized Seltsovsky, saying it was "bewildered by these unofficial figures" and that Moscow's death rates had actually fallen in January-June.

Health Minister Tatyana Golikova told a news conference that the heavy smog with the severe heat was "a real test" indeed for Moscow's residents with vascular and heart diseases. But she said she had no data about a rise in Moscow's death rates

Acrid smog blanketed Moscow for a sixth straight day Monday, with concentrations of carbon monoxide and other poisonous substances two to three times higher than what is considered safe. Those airborne pollutants reached a record over the weekend — exceeding the safe limit by nearly seven times.

About 550 separate blazes were burning nationwide Monday, mainly across western Russia, including about 40 around Moscow, according to the Emergencies Ministry. Forest and peat bog fires have been triggered by the most intense heat wave in 130 years of record keeping.

Alexander Frolov, head of Russia's weather service, said judging by historic documents, this heat wave could be the worst in up to 1,000 years.

"Our ancestors haven't observed or registered a heat like that within 1,000 years," Frolov said at a news conference. "This phenomenon is absolutely unique."

He said the heat in Moscow reflects the global climate's increased volatility.

No respite ahead
Daily highs have reached up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the usual summer average of 75 F. And, according to the forecast, there will be no respite this week.

Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, a climate change and health expert at the World Health Organization in Geneva, said deaths could certainly double with higher temperatures alone — a phenomenon seen during Europe's 2003 heat wave.

"The impacts tend to be more severe in places that are not used to these kinds of temperatures," he told The Associated Press. "These temperatures wouldn't be out of place in the southern U.S. or Australia, but in Russia, the infrastructure is not used to these temperatures and the risk of death will increase."

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Few apartments in Moscow have air conditioning and the city's overcrowded subway is poorly ventilated.

Campbell-Lendrum said it would be difficult to pinpoint whether the majority of new Russian deaths were due to the heat or to the smog, but said there was no question the combined effect was dangerous.

He said elderly people and those with health conditions like heart or lung problems were most at risk, but with extreme conditions, there could also be a spike in deaths of otherwise healthy people. He said the increased deaths would likely continue for as long as the heat wave persists.

Many Muscovites have been braving their trips to work, wearing facemasks to try to filter the smoke, but the masks were increasingly hard to find and some doctors raised concerns about an official whitewash of the real impact of the smoke in Moscow.

An unnamed doctor at a Moscow clinic wrote on his Internet site over the weekend that he was wary of diagnosing patients with heat- and smoke-related illnesses for fear of dismissal.

Another doctor at a major hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Sunday that senior management had instructed staff not to link patients' illnesses with the heat.

Not enough firefighters
At least 52 people have died directly in the wildfires and over 2,000 homes have been destroyed. Flights to Moscow have been delayed and diverted.

Russian authorities have acknowledged that the 10,000 firefighters battling the blazes aren't enough, and sent thousands of soldiers to help fight the fires.

Wednesday's international soccer match between Russia and Bulgaria was moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg, 370 miles to the northwest, due to the smog.

The severe drought and wildfires have destroyed 20 percent of Russia's wheat crop, prompting the government last week to introduce a ban on grain exports for the rest of the year. The news drove the price of wheat, which has already jumped 70 percent on world markets this summer, even higher.

On the Russian blogosphere, one of the country's last outposts of unfettered expression, the mood was bleak and angry that the situation had become so serious. One blogger on the popular LiveJournal site suggested that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Moscow's mayor and other top officials be fired for not stopping the fires. Another LiveJournal blogger said the polluting haze had prompted her to quit smoking.

Others focused on immediate issues — like getting a good night's sleep.

"Every night it's like we prepare for war," blogger Tsirtsis wrote on the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta's Web site. "With open windows, it's impossible to breathe because of the burning, and with closed windows we choke in the stifling heat."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Fires take toll in Moscow; floods hit Central Europe

  1. Closed captioning of: Fires take toll in Moscow; floods hit Central Europe

    >>> a deadly combination of fire and water is still taking its toll today in parts of europe. moscow's top health official said the number of deaths each day has gone up substantially because of acrid smog because of firefighters around the city. there is no break from the intense heat wave there in more than 130 years.

    >>> at the same time flooding is a problem in europe. one of the hardest hit areas was in poland. germany and the czech republic are also suffering. hundreds of homes and businesses have been damaged.

Photos: Fires rage across Russia

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  1. Front to back, Oleg Mikhailo, his father Valentin and son Anatoly, clear the site of the fire where their house burned to the ground in the village of Kartonosovo in Ryazan region, 111 miles southeast of Moscow on Thursday, Aug. 12. (Misha Japaridze / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A Belarussian firefighter works to extinguish a fire in a forest near the village of Ryabinovka, Ryazan region, on Aug. 12. The number and extent of forest fires in Russia‘s central European provinces showed signs of abating for the first time in weeks. (Maxim Shipenkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers on their way to extinguishing a forest fire near the village of Tokhushevo, on Wednesday, Aug. 11. A new wildfire broke out Wednesday near a major nuclear research centre in the Russian town of Sarov, causing the plant's management to ask firefighters and troops to reverse their withdrawal. (Viktor Drachev / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A helicopter carries water before releasing it over a forest fire near the settlement of Kustarevka in Ryazan region, 211 miles southeast of Moscow on Tuesday, Aug. 10. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Firefighters watch as heavy smoke billows near Kustaryovka, Ryazan region, on Tuesday, Aug. 10. Hundreds of wildfires have swept western Russia and cloaked Moscow in suffocating smog. (Maxim Shipenkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A small dog outfitted with a face mask walks in Moscow on Aug. 10. (Viktor Drachev / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A passenger looks at airplanes shrouded in heavy smog caused by peat fires at Vnukovo airport outside Moscow on Aug. 9. (Alexander Natruskin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Residents attempt to extinguish a fire near the village of Polyaki-Maydan in Ryazan region, some 235 miles southeast of Moscow, on Aug. 9. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. People rest on the Manezhaya Square just outside the Kremlin Aug. 9, enjoying the brief respite from the smog due to a change in the wind direction. Deaths in Moscow have doubled to an average of 700 people a day as the Russian capital is engulfed by poisonous smog from wildfires and a sweltering heat wave, a top health official said. (Ivan Sekretarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A forest fire spreads near the village of Verkhnyaya Vereya in Nizhny Novgorod region, 225 miles east of Moscow, on Aug. 7. This picture was received Aug. 8. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People cover their faces with cloth to protect themselves from the smell of heavy smog while waiting for their flight at Domodedovo airport outside Moscow on Aug. 8. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Residents walk amidst the debris of their houses, as they search for their belongings with heavy smog shrouding the village of Laskovo, Russia, on Aug. 8. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Women trying to protect themselves from the smell of heavy smog caused by peat fires in nearby forests, sit inside a train at an underground railway station in Moscow on Aug. 8. (Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. People attend a religious service, asking God for rains to prevent new wildfire outbursts, in the village of Kriusha, Russia, on Saturday, Aug. 7. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A newly married couple shares a tender moment despite the deep layer of smog from wildfires covering the ancient Russian city of Ryazan, Russia, on Aug. 7. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. People sit amidst the charred ruins of the village of Peredeltsy burned to the ground by a spreading wildfire in Ryazan region, some 111 miles southeast of Moscow, Moscow, Friday, Aug. 6. More than 500 separate blazes were burning nationwide Friday mainly across western Russia, amid the country's most intense heat wave in 130 years. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Russians and tourists wear facemasks to protect themselves from forest fire smog while walking on Red Square in Moscow on Friday, Aug. 6. Smog from wildfires in the countryside choked Moscow, with the levels of toxic particles, raising alarm over public health and numerous commuters wearing anti-pollution masks. (Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Russian servicemen remove felled trees, cut down to limit the spread of fire outside Lukhovitsy, 68 miles southeast of Moscow on Aug. 6. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Russian women look at the charred remians of a building south of Moscow in Izlegoshche on Aug. 6. The village of Izlegoshche was completely destroyed by wildfires and will not be rebuilt, according to an administrative decision. (Alexey Sazonov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crews try to keep the fires from spreading to the village Golovanovo, Ryazan region, on Thursday, Aug. 5. Russia was struggling to contain the worst wildfires in its modern history. At least 50 people have been killed. (Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Cars drive through thick smoke from wildfires close to the road in the city of Balashikha just east of Moscow on Aug. 5 (Sergei Chirikov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A firefighter attempts to extinguish a forest fire near the village of Dolginino in the Ryazan region, 111 miles southeast of Moscow on Aug. 4. (Str / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. People walk past the Kremlin shrouded in smog on Aug. 4. Air quality levels in Moscow tumbled to an eight-year low as the Russian capital was blanketed in thick smoke from forest and peat fires. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Russian firefighters cut a path between a forest and the village of Kupavna to stop fire from spreading on Aug. 3. (Maxim Shipenkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Residents fill pails with water as they work to extinguish a forest fire near the settlement of Provolochnoye in the Nizhny Novgorod region, about 185 miles from Moscow on Aug. 3. (Yuri Kochetkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Smoke rises east of Moscow in this satellite image released on Aug. 3. (European Space Agency via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A woman surveys the remains of private storage buildings and garages with her son after fire destroyed the structures in Ostfievo, outisde Moscow, on Aug. 3. (Maxim Shipenkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Residents comb debris for belongings destroyed by fire outside Moscow on Aug. 3. (Maxim Shipenkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Russian servicemen fighting forest and peat fires rest in a forest near the town of Gus-Khrustalny in the Vladimir region, southeast of Moscow on Monday, Aug. 2. At least 34 people have died in wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and burned through vast spans of tinder-dry land, but firefighters are making headway and the blazes are dying down, a Russian official said Monday. (Yuri Kochetkov / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A burned car sits amidst the ruins of houses that were destroyed by a forest fire in the village of Shuberskoe, north of the town of Voronezh, Russia, on Monday. (Mikhail Metzel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Maria Orehova, 76, weeps at a distribution center for donated clothes after her house was burned by a forest fire in a suburb of the town of Voronezh on Monday. (Mikhail Metzel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Moscow's St. Basil's cathedral and Lenin's Mausoleum, right, are seen through the smog covering Russia's capital. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A Russian man watches forest fires burn in Beloomut late on Sunday, August 1. (Andrey Smirnov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A firefighter works to extinguish forest fires on the outskirts of the Russian city of Voronezh on Saturday, July 31. Hundreds of thousands of firefighters, including army troops, battled blazes raging across central Russia during the worst heat wave in decades. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A firefighter douses flames among trees in the village of Lesnoye on July 31. (Artyom Korotayev / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A man searches through the rubble for his belongings after a fire swept through the village of Mokhovoye. (Artyom Korotayev / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Firefighters try to douse a fire set at the edge of Voronezh. (Alexey Sazonov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Residents cover their noses from the smog as they sit outside their houses in the village of Vilya on July 31. (Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A man inspects a burnt building in the village of Beloomut on July 31. (Andrey Smirnov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. An elderly woman holding a chicken is comforted in front of her burned home on the outskirts of the city of Voronezh on July 30. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A firefighter works to extinguish a fire amidst the debris of a burnt house near Voronezh on Friday. Fires in Voronezh, Nizhny Nvogorod and the Moscow region have detroyed more than 1,000 homes. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A soldier walks past birch trees damaged by fire, on the outskirts of Voronezh. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, Nizhny Novgorod region Governor Valery Shantsev, center, and an Emergency Situation ministry officer inspect a village burnt down by wildfire in the Vyksa district of the Nizhny Novgorod region on Friday. Over 2,000 people have been left homeless by wildfires ."Before winter, each house will be restored," Putin told the villagers. "I promise — the village will be rebuilt." (Alexey Druzhinyn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Sweet peppers are seen in front of the ruins of a burned house near Voronezh on Friday. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A woman holds icons and a cross as fire caused by severe heat burns nearby, outside the town of Vyksa, on Thursday, July 29. (Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Men walk in front of a burning building outside the town of Vyksa on July 29, 2010. (Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. A woman sits amidst her belongings watching a fire burn outside the town of Vyksa on July 29. (Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A woman passes by a church while heavy smoke from the fires fills the sky outside the town of Vyksa on July 29. (Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. A grass fire burns at Khodynskoe Pole aviation museum in Moscow on July 29. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Local residents make a human chain to carry buckets of water to extinguishes a peat fire in a forest near the town of Shatura, southeast of Moscow on July 29. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. A firefighter works to extinguish a peat fire in a forest near the town of Shatura on July 27. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Moscow's Kremlin is covered by heavy smog on July 27 . Muscovites are struggling to breathe as the capital is blanketed in smoke from peat and forest fires burning in the surrounding courtyside. (Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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