Russian forest and ground fires darken Helsinki skies – once again
Expert: elevated particle content may cause dozen deaths per week in Southern Finland
On Tuesday the small particles content in the air in the capital area was five times as high as normal.
The particle content has been above average since Sunday. The situation is expected to get better on Thursday, when prevailing winds are predicted to change direction.
The air’s elevated particle content has already started to cause symptoms with the most susceptible individuals. Especially vulnerable are the elderly suffering with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or coronary disease.
“If the situation stays as it is even for a week, it can be expected to cause ten or so premature deaths in Southern Finland, plus many more cases of worsening of cardio-pulmonary diseases”, reckons physician and docent Raimo O. Salonen from the National Public Health Institute.
The small particles are considerably more harmful to people than, say, street dust. This is because their size allows them to penetrate even to the most sensitive recesses of the lungs.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has calculated that a ten micrograms per square metre increase in the small particle content within a 24-hour period translates to a 1% rise in the population’s mortality rate.
On Tuesday, the amount of small particles in the air in the Helsinki area was nearly 50 micrograms per square metre, whereas the normal level is below ten.
Because of the drifting smoke and particles, the air quality in the entire capital area was barely passable. In some of the Environmental Administration’s small particle measuring points in the southeast and southwest of the country the air quality was rated as poor.
In the capital area, the air quality was further worsened by pollen and street dust.
According to the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Council (YTV), the small particles primarily originate from ground fires in Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine, from where the southerly and south-easterly winds carry them to Southern Finland. A human eye can detect the smog as light mist.
The problem became particularly acute in the late summer of 2006, with smoke from persistent forest fires in Russia hanging over parts of Finland for a couple of weeks (see links).
“Often we get the drifting smoke in March-April. At this time of the year, the prevailing winds come from Eastern Europe, where people still practice burning off the ground for agricultural purposes”, says YTV air protection expert Maria Myllynen.
A National Public Health Institute expert’s wish is that burning off in this way would be banned across the whole of Europe.
According to the Finnish Ministry of the Interior, all Finland can do, when it comes down to it, is to voice its concern.
“Sure, we have discussed the matter, but the Russian view is that there are bigger problems than smoke in the sky”, explains senior officer Rami Ruuska from the Ministry.
In Raimo O. Salonen’s view, the problem is that people are not aware of the seriousness of the issue.
“In Finland alone, the small particles are estimated to cause 1,300 premature deaths per year. In the entire EU region the corresponding figure is 350,000”, Salonen concludes.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Long-awaited rain and southerly wind clear smoke from Russian forest fires (16.8.2006)
Smoke from Russian forest fires reaches west of Finland (14.8.2006)
National Public Health Institute
YTV: Air Quality