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The Way It Was

The Smog. Long-term affects?
John Harrison and Mandisa Baptiste

The summer smog may already seem like a long time ago now that a possibly severe winter has started. However, many foreigners living here have and are concerned as to whether the summer smog will have any long-term effects.

We talked to two well know medical doctors about this issue: Professor Leonid Mikhailovich Petchatnikov, Medical Director at EMC and Dr. Luigi Migliorini, the Italian born representative of World Health Organisation (WHO) for Russia.

The situation was, as we all know, serious. Not because we have never experienced smog before in Moscow, but because it lasted such a long time. At the same time, there was a long period of very high temperatures which is unusual for our northern climate. Our experts elucidated:

Professor Pechatnikov: “The heat was augmented with smoke, not smog, from burning peat fires and burning wood. This smoke covered the whole of Moscow. From a medical point of view, the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere fell dramatically, and we breathed smoke from burning materials. But the worse thing was the lack of oxygen, and the heat”.

Dr Migliorini: The effects of the smoke ranged from eye and respiratory tract irritation to more serious disorders, including reduced lung function,bronchitis, exacerbated asthma and deterioration of chronic respiratory disease to death in special vulnerable groups like the eldery population. In addition, particles are respiratory irritants, and exposure to them caused persistent cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty in breathing. Exposure to higher levels of carbon monoxide like in Moscow caused headaches, weakness, dizziness, confusion, nausea, disorientation and visual impairment.

So much for the short term effects. But what about the long term picture?

Professor Pechatnikov: “I don’t think that people should be unduly worried because the residue of burnt wood and peat ended up in the bottom of our lungs, where it was quickly absorbed by micro-phagocytes. All of these materials are organic and not difficult for the lungs to deal with. The only possible complication is that these particles can be instrumental in developing chronic bronchitis, but only in people who were already developing such a condition. This is not the same sort of thing as cement dust or poisonous paint pigment which can lead to a reduction in the surface area of the lungs. Of course if forests burned down which were at some time in the past polluted with radioactive dust then we are talking about a much more serious situation, but I have no data at all to suggests that is the case.”

Dr. Migliorini: “The few days that this episode lasted for is not enough to contribute a significant increase of long term health effects.”

Could the particles lead to people getting cancer?

Professor Pechatnikov: “The carbon monoxide that we breathed was absorbed into our blood streams and then discarded by our bodies. It had an effect of partially disorienting us because that is what carbon monoxide does, and that is why people like to use it to commit suicide, but after abnormal levels in the air have normalised, it leads to no particularly serious consequences, otherwise we would not be communicating with each other now.”

Dr. Migliorini: “This pollution mostly caused immediate health effects, such as respiratory or cardio respiratory symptoms, which increased daily mortality. An increased risk of cancer is related to long term (years) of exposure to pollutants and such short episodes, such as the wildfire smoke cannot contribute to cancer risk.”

So it looks like we are safe. If there is going to be long-term effect of the smog in Moscow, it is probably going to be an increase in the mistrust of people who live in this city to the Moscow authorities. Muscovites were outraged in being misled as regards the number of deaths in the city.

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