Why the Russian Environmental Monitoring System Does Not Work

IStories studied data on air pollution in Russia and investigated how the state “enhances” official statistics on harmful emissions while millions of Russians die because of poor ecology

5 Aug 2021
Why the Russian Environmental Monitoring System Does Not Work
Illustration: Maria Dmitrova

"Two years ago, my daughter called me saying: ‘Dad, help me, I'm suffocating.’" She was walking from school down a street with no houses or shops nearby to run into and hide. I know exactly what sulfur oxide is, how it affects the lungs and causes spasms. I rushed out into the street, saw the gas, got into the car and went to get my daughter. Fortunately, I managed to pick her up, and what if I hadn't? I was furious and since then I’ve been really mad at Norilsk Nickel and [the owner of the enterprise Vladimir] Potanin. I understand that they have to keep production going, that they want to earn money. But they also poison people and kill nature," says a Norilsk resident Ramil Sadrlimanov.

At the end of July this year, Ramil and his friend Ruslan Abdulaev recorded the exceeding threshold limit value (TLV) of harmful substances. TLV is the amount of a substance that does not irritate the mucous membranes with short-term exposure, does not smell and does not exceed the permissible level of health risk in long-term. The Сhief State Sanitary Doctor of the Russian Federation has established the threshold limit value for 716 different pollutants.

In the July measurements of Ruslan and Ramil, the level of sulfur dioxide exceeded the TLV by 16.6 times, hydrogen sulfide by 30 times, mercaptans by 51 times, and hydrocarbons in general by 149 times. The gas analyzer for such measurements was presented to them by the All-Russian Society for Nature Protection and certified by the Federal Technical Regulation and Metrology Agency. Ramil Sadrlimanov told IStories that they started measuring pollution with this device only recently. Until then, residents of Norilsk had been posting photo and video confirmations of emissions on social networks for several years: "We started to record violations because it was no longer possible to breathe. You couldn’t inhale even if you wanted to."

Rospotrebnadzor publishes official data on air pollution in Norilsk only once a month. The latest data are available for June: all substances were within the normal range, except nitrogen dioxide and copper, the content of which exceeded the TVL by 2.3 and 1.4 times respectively. Both Rospotrebnadzor and the heads of enterprises refuse to take into account the measurements of residents. "Even if public activists have certified devices, we still don’t know whether they followed the rules of air sampling or not. You can run air through the device for several days and then record a value exceeding legal standards by 500 times. You can also hold the device close to the exhaust pipe," Rospotrebnadzor employees told local journalists.

On July 28, Nornickel organized a meeting with public non-profit organizations, environmentalists, and representatives of local communities to discuss methods to improve the quality of life in Norilsk. "During the meeting, the managers of Nornickel said that our measurements were made by some weird blogger and now he complains that people are being killed. And we want the company to reduce emissions when the wind blows in the direction of the city, because in adverse meteorological conditions such reduction is required by law," explains Ramil Sadrlimanov.

Independent measurements of air pollution are carried out not only in Norilsk. In many Russian cities with large enterprises local residents collect data on atmospheric pollution to force enterprises to reduce harmful emissions. People have to do this because the state monitoring services are coping with their duties poorly.

"In order not to suffocate, people don't even open their windows at night while Roshydromet indicators show no violations"

In 2019, state monitoring of atmospheric pollution covered only a fifth of all Russian cities. The main part of the measurements — 221 cities out of 250 — was carried out by the Federal Service for Environmental Monitoring (Roshydromet). Even large cities with a population of more than 100 thousand people are not supervised completely. Therefore, the air quality data that Roshydromet publishes in its yearbook does not show the real scale and intensity of pollution.

In 2019 nitrogen dioxide was the most tracked chemical but even so it was tracked only in 244 cities out of 1,117. Other dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzopyrene or phenol are measured even less often. All these substances are classified as carcinogens — their effect on the human body increases the risk of malignant tumors. Constant inhalation of these pollutants increases inner intoxication and affects the immune system. Fine suspended particles PM10 and PM2.5 (a pollutant composed of solid and liquid particles ranging in size from about 10 nanometers to 2.5 micrometers. —  Ed. Note) are tracked in less than ten cities. After these particles find a way into the human body, they disrupt the work of the respiratory and circulatory systems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), PM2.5 increases the mortality rate from cardiovascular, respiratory diseases and lung cancer. About 5 % of deaths from lung cancer in the world are associated with fine suspended particles. Elderly, children and people with chronic lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases, asthma and frequent colds are most at risk.

5 %
of deaths
from lung cancer in the world are associated with fine suspended particles

Another issue is that the state monitoring services do not track all emissions. In the annual Roshydromet review for 2020 it’s stated that within one monitoring zone no more than 34 different chemicals are measured. At the same time, according to ecologist Olga Balandina, the number of pollutants in cities can reach several hundred.

In the Bashkir city of Sterlitamak, several large enterprises operate at once and emit harmful chemicals. "Our rubber plant emits pentane, pentylene and isoprene (at high concentrations these compounds make breathing difficult, lead to dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, itching in the eyes and sore throat. — Ed. Note). Roshydromet doesn’t track any of these chemicals, which means it violates our right to access reliable information. The main emission of a petrochemical plant is methanol (a strong poison that affects nerves and blood vessels, causes coughing, dizziness, headache, nausea, and can cause visual impairment. — Ed. Note). Roshydromet doesn't track it either," said Olga Balandina, an ecologist and an activist of the "Breathe, Sterlitamak!" project.

To monitor the air quality, activists rented a gas analyzer and made independent measurements, filming the process on camera. "We’ve been using this device for only two months and have already registered excesses in methanol. I sent a letter to the Bashkir division of Roshydromet, the Ministry of Environment, Rospotrebnadzor, Rosprirodnadzor, the environmental prosecutor's office, explaining that we recorded everything on a certified device and that we have a video conformation of it. Roshydromet replied: "We do not track methanol." That's it. Harmful chemicals that are not monitored by the state control services are a problem for the whole country. But it’s still unclear how to solve it," says Balandina.

“Harmful chemicals that are not monitored by the state control services are a problem for the whole country. But it’s still unclear how to solve it”
Olga Balandina,
environmentalist and "Breathe, Sterlitamak!" activist

Another problem in cities where Roshydromet measures the main pollutants is the frequency of measurements. Roshydromet analyzes air quality only a few times a day, although many enterprises make their main emissions at night. "In Ryazan, activists of the Breathe Clean project have installed a stationary device that constantly monitors air quality. According to the collected data, during Roshydromet air intake hours the emissions are reduced. But after an hour emissions are increasing once again. In order not to suffocate, people don't even open their windows at night while Roshydromet indicators show no violations," said environmentalist Olga Balandina.

Not only environmental activists, but state auditors speak about the poor quality of monitoring as well. In 2020, the Accounts Chamber analyzed the state environmental safety information systems and came to the conclusion that Russia lacks reliable data on the state of the environment.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has been trying to develop a unified environmental monitoring system since 2011, but no one has done it in ten years. The Accounts Chamber is certain that even if the system is created, it won’t show a clear picture of pollution. The problem is that the Roshydromet will still be the main source of data. According to analysts of the Accounts Chamber, the technical equipment level of the Roshydromet does not meet modern international standards.

Help those who write about environmental issues in Russia
This will help to save the nature of our country

During the same ten-year period, the system of public control called Our Nature was created — according to the Accounts Chamber, it’s an example of inefficient budget spendings. Authorities assumed that through a form on the website or an application people would leave messages about unauthorized landfills, illegal deforestation, pollution of rivers and different water basins or other environmental violations. State and municipal authorities were supposed to respond to these messages, solve problems and report back to citizens. Approximately 119.7 million rubles were spent in order to create this system, but only 192 people used it during the last 8 years. This means that the average cost of one appeal was more than 600 thousand rubles. In 2020, not a single appeal was recorded.

Pollution incompatible with life

Dirty air is a serious risk factor for human health. According to WHO estimates, about 7 million people die from diseases caused by atmospheric pollution annually.

The American Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation has found out how air pollution affects mortality in different countries. According to its study, 43 per 100,000 people die from dirty air in Russia. In developed European countries and the United States, this value is two times lower.

Air pollution mortality rate

The damage from polluted air is also calculated by Rospotrebnadzor. The service states that in all 12 cities that are included in the federal Clean Air program, more than ten thousand people die from exposure to suspended particles annually. This is 13.7 % of the total mortality in these cities. The most harmful substances affect the respiratory system, immune system and blood. 

Manipulations with TLV 

The Clean Air Project has been operating since 2017. Its goal is to "drastically reduce atmospheric air pollution in large industrial cities." The creators of this program plan to achieve improvements by reducing the total amount of emissions. But, according to environmentalists, the danger of different chemicals is not related to the volume of their emissions. "Imagine that in front of you is a mountain of sand and a small ampoule of potassium cyanide. Which one is more dangerous? The toxicity of a chemical matters and it cannot be measured by gross emissions," explains Elena Vasilyeva, the Department of Research and Expertise of the Russian branch of Greenpeace expert. 

million people in Russia
live in areas with annual pollutant concentration exceeding the safe level

The level of urban pollution is estimated by the exceeding value of TLV. Roshydromet publishes data on how many cities have exceeded concentrations of harmful chemicals every year. In 2019, the average annual concentration of one or more pollutants exceeded the TLV in 133 areas where more than 50 million people live. For example, in Abakan, the maximum average daily concentration of benzo(a)pyrene, which increases the risk of developing malignant tumors, reached 88 TLVs, and in Arkhangelsk — 29.8 TLVs.

Experts calculate the Air Quality Index (AQI) based on the five chemicals that contribute to the pollution in a particular city the most . If AQI is greater than or equal to seven, the level of atmospheric pollution is considered high, if above 14 — very high. The number of cities with high and very high levels of pollution peaked in 2003-2004 after an abnormally hot summer and fires of 2002. Until 2013, this indicator stayed at an approximately stable level, but in 2014 it suddenly and sharply plummeted by two and a half times.

How the number of the cities with high air pollution rate changed throughout the years

However, such a sharp decrease in the number of polluted cities is associated not with an improvement in the environment, but with loosened regulations. According to the Roshydromet, if one takes into account old TLV values, in 2019 the high level of pollution was actually recorded in 98 cities and not only in 40. 

One of the main contaminators of air in many cities is the highly toxic carcinogenic pollutant formaldehyde. If its concentration in the air greatly exceeds the threshold limit value, it harms the central nervous system and vision.

Specialists of Roshydromet and the Ministry of Natural Resources have been tracking an increase in the concentration of formaldehyde for many years. As a result, the problem was "solved" by lowering the standards. In 2014, the threshold limit value of formaldehyde increased from 0.035 to 0.05 milligrams per cubic meter. So, the official number of cities polluted with formaldehyde decreased sharply, but in fact it continued to grow. 

According to the new TLV, in 2019 almost 16 million people lived in cities with a higher than normal concentration of formaldehyde. And according to the old TLV, 64.5 million people in 152 different cities breathe in air polluted with formaldehyde. This is 93 % of all cities where measurements of this chemical were carried out.

The formaldehyde contamination of cities continues to grow

If one takes into account the stricter old standards, the number of cities with the concentration of formaldehyde exceeding the standard has increased by a third since 2003. According to Roshydromet, enterprises have increased air-polluting emissions by 44 % while not exceeding the established standards over the past five years. "Regardless of chemical emissions, there may be a time when the total number of polluted cities in Russia will increase due to formaldehyde," says the program director of the Russian branch of Greenpeace Ivan Blokov. 

The standards are lowering not only in relation to formaldehyde, but also to other harmful chemicals. Rosprirodnadzor has been loosening the TLV for the last 20 years. According to Greenpeace, the threshold limit value for nitrogen dioxide was doubled and for methyl mercaptan it was increased 660 times. As a result, the TLV for methyl mercaptan was above the sensitivity threshold. Therefore, even when the chemical is within the TLV, citizens can feel an unpleasant smell. Nitrogen dioxide can lead to coughing and respiratory disorders even at low concentrations, and children exposed to it long-term are at higher risk of bronchitis. Methyl mercaptan has a distinct strong smell that can lead to fainting and even respiratory failure, while a large amount of methyl mercaptan negatively affects the liver.

Changes in TVL

"Even if you suffocate, you won’t prove that the harm to health is associated with violations"

Currently, the fine for violating air protection rules for corporations is only 100 thousand rubles. The relief of the TLV allows enterprises to avoid even such a minor responsibility. An expert of the Department of Research and Expertise of the Russian branch of Greenpeace Elena Vasilyeva told IStories, that the lower the standards and higher the threshold limit value, the less companies will pay for excess emissions and invest in maintaining environmental indicators, modernizing their manufacturing and following environmental protection measures. 

Proving that health issues are associated with harmful emissions has also become more difficult because citizens need to measure the concentration of chemicals near their houses. When the standards are inflated it is almost impossible to prove a violation. "Even if you suffocate, you won’t prove that the harm to health is caused by emissions. According to the standards there'll be no excesses in their concentration," explained Elena Vasilyeva.

The loosened regulations also make people unable to move out of contaminated territories. There are sanitary protection zones (SPZ) around enterprises — territories where residential buildings, schools and other institutions can’t be located. The size of such SPZs depends on the volume and toxicity of chemicals that the plant emits. According to the law, companies have to relocate any residential buildings in the SPZ to a safe distance. If the regulations are not strict, sanitary protection zones are reduced, and people are forced to stay in dangerous areas. 

"The system of state control is collapsing because of its transformations"

According to Elena Vasilyeva, Russia has been constantly reorganizing its control system for the last 20 years. The number of employees who work in the field and track compliance with standards and laws is being reduced. As a result, almost all environmental problems, including air pollution, are only getting worse. 

"The solving of environmental violations is now so formalized that it has no real impact. Residents may complain that they have red dust on their windowsills for years. Authorities will direct their attention to the situation only after the complaint has passed numerous legal instances. At the same time, there are usually questions about the quality of official inspections and their effectiveness. It’s very difficult to access data on air quality near enterprises. The system of state control is collapsing because of its transformations and public oversight is rudimentary", Vasilyeva explained. 

An expert of the Department of Research and Expertise of the Russian branch of Greenpeace
Elena Vasilyeva
“It’s very difficult to access data on air quality near enterprises. The system of state control is collapsing because of its transformations and public oversight is rudimentary”

An automatic open-source system of 24/7 monitoring would help solve many problems. But, according to the Accounts Chamber, the Roshydromet network, which is still the main source of environmental data, has neither sufficient density nor a level of automation.

At the time of publication, Roshydromet and Rospotrebnadzor did not respond to requests from IStories. In 2019, in response to the Russian branch of Greenpeace about the loosened TLVs, Rospotrebnadzor referred to toxicological, hygienic and epidemiological studies and analysis of international practices, but refused to provide supporting documents. Greenpeace sent a similar request to the research organizations of Rospotrebnadzor. The Research Institute of Human Ecology and Environmental Health replied that the review of scientific literature and foreign hygiene standards, provided to Rospotrebnadzor, was only referencial and was not taken into account during the TLV update. 

Editors: Alesya Marokhovskaya, Sofia Samokhina