Health alarm as acrid smog blankets Moscow

MOSCOW, Aug 7, 2010 (AFP) - Wearing sanitary masks or clutching wet rags to their faces, Moscow residents struggled Saturday against the worst smog in living memory which has enveloped the Russian capital from spreading wildfires.

The concentration of toxic particles was up to five times higher than safe levels, experts warned, as the city's iconic landmarks like the Kremlin and golden church cupolas disappeared behind a layer of smoke.

The emergencies ministry warned that the wildfires which have sparked the smog were still spreading in central Russia as weather forecasters said Russia's worst heatwave in decades would continue for the next days.

The fires have raised concerns about the security of Russia's main nuclear research centre in the still closed city of Sarov, one of the areas worst hit by the blazes and where the emergencies ministry has sent thousands of workers.

A Russian man walks by his burned out house in the village of Verchnaya Vereya, some 350 kilometres from Moscow, on August 6, 2010. AFP

The authorities were also closely watching the situation around the region of Bryansk in western Russia where the soils are still contaminated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Moscow drivers put on their headlights in broad daylight to see through the acrid smog that had descended on the capital while the sun shone as a hazy disc easily viewed by the naked eye with little discomfort.

The smoke -- easily visible from space in NASA images -- penetrated into homes and offices and was even visible inside the Moscow metro, one of the deepest underground systems in the world.

"The situation is truly extreme. People are in circumstances under which they should not have to live," leading Russian doctor Ivan Yurlov of the League for the Nation's Health group told the Kommersant daily.

Flights from Domodedovo, one of Moscow's main international airports, were disrupted by the smog with several flights diverted to other airports and around 40 flights cancelled, state aviation committee Rosavitsia said.

"Visibility around Domodedovo is 325 metres (1,050 feet): it is up to the captain of the aircraft to make a decision about landing," Rosaviatsia official Sergei Izvolsky told Interfax.

The other main international hub, Sheremetyevo in the north of Moscow, was working normally.

Germany closed its embassy until further notice and advised citizens against "non-essential" travel to the affected regions while the US State Department asked nationals to seriously review travel plans.

Russia's football federation meanwhile moved a friendly match with Bulgaria from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, fearing for the health of the players.

With health experts warning that the best solution was to leave the city for the weekend, package tours abroad were completely sold out and there was a rush for seats on trains and planes out of the capital, news agencies said.

The levels of carbon monoxide in the air were five times higher than the maximum level acceptable for public health, state pollution watchdog Moseokmonitoring was quoted as saying in the Kommersant daily.

The situation with the wildfires that have sparked the smog showed no sign of abating, with blazes with an area of 193,500 hectares (478,000 acres) recorded across the country.

In the last 24 hours, 290 new fires were recorded, more than the 244 that were extinguished in the same timespan, the emergencies ministry said.

River cruises in Moscow, a popular summer pastime, were cancelled as the smog made navigation impossible while some museums were also shut down as the smog penetrated their ventilation systems.

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