Russia and the Environment

Air Pollution in Russia
Posted by: , December 7, 2011, 9:48 pm
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Background information

Using data from the Russian Weather Service, it has been estimated that approximately 15 to 17 percent of all premature deaths in Russia “might be caused by air pollution” (Kazazyan and Reshetin). According to this estimate, 219,000 – 233,000 people die each year prematurely due to unhealthy air. Approximately 2,000 – 4,000 people annually have cancer due to “carcinogens present in the atmosphere” (Kazazyan and Reshetin). According to some estimates, more Russians die from air pollution than from tuberculosis or traffic accidents (Golub and Strukova).

Pollution from factories has been detected in the air, soil, drinking water (due to acid rain), and cows’ milk (Aksel et. al.). Of ten Russian cities examined, air pollution levels increased in all ten cities from 1993 to 1998 (Kazazyan and Reshetin). It has been suggested that this increase in pollution was due to an increase in private vehicle ownership (Cherp et. al.) Residents living in Novosibirsk, Vladimir, Novgorod and Moscow are at most risk for developing cancer from air pollution (Kazazyan and Reshetin). In 1991, the deputy of the Soviet Ministry of Health claimed that 125 cities had higher levels of pollution than permissible by law (Feshback and Friendly).

In 2002, the Russian government took steps to “start environmental management reform” focused on air pollution. In 2004, the Russian government adopted official guiding principles for addressing the negative effects caused by air pollution (Golub and Strukova). In the image below, you can see various levels of air pollution in Moscow in 2008. The map was created by the Russian International News Agency (“RIA Novosti”). The green indicates areas with healthy air, orange indicates areas with medium levels of air pollution, and red indicates areas in the city where the air is unhealthy.

Air Pollution in Moscow in 2008 (Source: RIA Novosti)


Evolution of Pollution

During Soviet times, the largest source of air pollution came from industrial sources. As the Soviet Union developed, inefficient and pollution-heavy machinery was not always replaced. One of the largest sources of air pollution came from the gas refinery industry (Europa Publications Limited). The pollution from these factories affected those citizens that lived closest to the industrial facilities. For example, bronchial asthma increased sevenfold from 1949 to 1981 in Moscow (Feshback and Friendly). Even though economic liberalization experienced by post-communities countries has been thought to spur the use of clean technology polluting industries, this did not occur in most industrial sectors in Russia (Cherp et. al.).

Another type of air pollution that began to concern many Soviet citizens during the 1990s was radiation from nuclear facilities. In 1986, the nuclear submarine Komsomolets caught on fire and sunk in the Barents Sea (Hønneland and Jørgensen). The public grew increasingly concerned about the safety and reliability of nuclear energy after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986. For more information about the health effects of nuclear radiation, please see Nealy’s article about Chernobyl below.  

 Common Pollutants in Russia

Although the majority of air pollution in Russia is due to industrial processes, benzene has been found  in large quantities in areas with high levels of cigarette smokers. According to the Kazazyan and Reshetin, benzene has been found to cause approximately 66.03 percent of air pollution related cancers in ten cities examined. Benzene is produced as a byproduct of burning coal, oil and tobacco smoke (US EPA (a)).

The second most abundant pollutant in the ten Russian cities examined is chromium (VI) causing approximately 16.59 of air pollution related cancers in the ten cities researched (Kazazyan and Rehetin). Chromium is a byproduct of steel and cement production, chrome plating, and the manufacture of dyes and pigments. For example, chromium yellow was originally used to paint school buses. Due to the prevalence of chromium in major industrial processes, humans are exposed to chromium through daily activities such as breathing, eating, and drinking water. In areas where chromium pollution is prevalent, humans may experience abdominal pain and vomiting. Chromium is a known carcinogen and has been directly linked to lung cancer. Research also suggests that chromium may also be responsible for complications during pregnancy (US EPA (b)).

The third most prevalent air pollutant in the study completed by Kazazyan and Rehetin was formaldehyde. Although it only consists of 12.96 percent of air pollution related cancer in the ten cities examined, formaldehyde is inhaled in large quantities daily. Even though trace quantities of formaldehyde is found naturally in the outdoors, it is produced by humans in large quantities due to cigarette smoking, use of gas stoves, and manufacturing of plywood . Formaldehyde has been found to cause watery eyes, nausea, skin rashes, and may cause cancer (US EPA (c)). Large sources of formaldehyde may be coming from Russia’s timber-processing and construction industries.

A pie-chart of carcinogenic compounds and their percentage of air pollution related cancers in ten Russian cities (Kazazyan and Reshetin).
Norilsk, Russia

According to the Blacksmith Institute, Norilsk was labeled one of the ten most polluted cities in the world. A former labor camp during the Soviet Union, today Norilsk is the home to approximately 170,000 people and hosts numerous “coal-burning copper, cobalt, and nickel smelters.” Ninety one percent of the pollution released in Norilsk is sulfur-dioxide – one of the leading causes of acid rain (Europa Publications Limited). The smelters in Norilsk produce more sulfur dioxide emissions than France (Kramer).  Even with technological improvements, the three main factories in Norilsk have only reduced sulfur-dioxide emissions by 16 percent since the fall of the Soviet Union (BBC).

Dead Forests of Norilsk (image: NY Times)

 The pollution in Norilsk has created a dead zone around the city effectively killing 1.2 million acres of forest. During the spring thaw, streams are filled with black soot (Kramer). The human effects have also been tragic. According to Doctor Svetlana Golubkova, people that immigrated to the industrial city in the 1960s were healthy, but their children and grandchildren are ill (BBC).

Indoor Air Pollution

While outdoor air pollution affects all humans, some indoor air pollutants disproportionately affect the individuals working in certain factories. On average, factory workers all over the world are exposed to higher levels of chemicals and toxins than those who do not work in factories. For example, factory workers at a milk processing plant in Saint-Petersburg are exposed to more chlorine than legally permitted. At a factory built with Russian and Western funds in 1989, researchers found in 1998 that workers were exposed to “air pollution with toxic substances” (Belova et. al.). Concentrations of alkali were found up to three times higher than the maximum permissible concentration. Chlorine was also found in concentrations of 0.5 – 1.5 mg/m3, two to three times higher than permitted concentrations. Ammonia was found in the factory ranging in concentration from 5 – 93.3 mg/m3 , while the maximum permissible concentration by law is 20 mg/m3 (Belova et. al.).

Another source of both indoor and outdoor air pollution is lead. Lead has been found in large quantities in indoor dust and paint. Even though Kazazyan and Reshetin’s research found that lead was only responsible for 0.10% of air pollution related cancers, lead is still a serious concern. One study examined kindergarteners in the Russian cities of Karsnouralsk, Ekaterinurg, and Volgograd in 1997 – each city has multiple factories and heavy vehicular traffic (Esteban et. al.). During the time of the study, Russia had not completely implemented a ban on leaded gasoline or leaded paint. As a result, Russian citizens were still being exposed to lead in heavy quantities in both outdoor and indoor environments.  Researchers found that, on average, 23 percent of the children had elevated blood lead levels and two percent of the children were anemic (Esteban et. al.).


Tracking Pollution in Moscow

Clicking on the image below will take you to a Russian website that tracks air pollution levels in Moscow. For reference, “часы” refers to hourly levels of air pollution while “сутки” refers to the level of pollution within a 24-hour period. Green flags shows where pollution is below the maximum possible concentration of pollutants (i.e. SO2, NO2), orange flags show where pollution is in the range of permittable concentration, and red flags show where pollution levels have exceeded the maximum possible concentration.



Aksel, E., Brodsky, B., Ivanova, I., Klyuev, N., Revich, B., Ushakova, T., Zhuchenko, N. Dioxin Exposure and Public Health in Chapaevsky, Russia. Chemosphere 43(4–7). 2001. Available:

 BBC. Toxic Truth of secretive Siberian city. 5 April 2007. Accessed: 12 December 2011. Available:

 Belova, L. V., Kresova, G. A., Liubomudrova, T. A., Mishkich, I. A. Assessment of Working Conditions in a Modern Russian Milk Processing Plant from the Aspect of Occupational Medicine. Croatian Medical Journal. 40(1): 93 – 98. 1999. Available:

 Blacksmith Institute. The 2007 Top Ten of Worst Polluted Places. 12 September 2007. Accessed 12 December 2011. Available:

 Cherp, A., Kopteva, I., Mnatsakanian, R. Economic Transition and Environmental Sustainability: Effects of Economic Restructuring on Air Pollution in the Russian Federation. Journal of Environmental Management. 68(2): 141 – 151. 2003. Available:

 Esteban, E., Daley, W. R., Gurvitch, E., Karpati, A., Kuzmin, S. V., Noonan, G. P., Privalova, L. I., Reissman, D. B., Rubin, C. H., Zlepko, A., Zukov, A. Lead Poisoning among Young Children in Russia: Concurrent Evaluation of Childhood Lead Exposure in Ekaterinburg, Krasnouralsk, and Volgograd. Environmental Health Perspectives. 110(6): 559 – 562.  2002. Available:

 Feshback and Friendly. Ecocide in the USSR. Harper Collins: New York. 1992.

 Golub, A., Strukova, E. Evaluation and Identification of Priority Air Pollutants for Environmental Management on the Basis of Risk Analysis in Russia. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part A. 71. 86-91. 2008. Available via EBSCOhost.

 Hønneland, G.,  Jørgensen, A. Implementing International Environmental Agreements in Russia. Manchester University Press. United Kingdom, 2003.

 Kazazyan, V. I., Reshetin, V. P. Public-health Impact of Outdoor Air Pollution in Russia. Environmental Modeling and Assessment. 9(43-50). 2004. Available:

 Kramer, A., Yaffa, J. For One Business, Polluted Clouds Have Silvery Linings. New York Times. 12 July 2007. Accessed: 11 December 2011. Available:

 United States Environmental Protection Agency (a). Benzene. 2008. Accessed 21 November 2011. Available:

 United States Environmental Protection Agency (b). Chromium Compounds. 2000. Accessed 13 December 2011. Available:

 United States Environmental Protection Agency (c). An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality: Formaldehyde. 1997. Accessed 13 December 2011. Available:


More info:

Dirty Air Kills People.  (Video in Russian)

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