By Anna Saghabalian
The death toll from an unprecedented wave of carbon monoxide poisonings in Armenia continued to rise on Wednesday, despite declared government efforts to enforce safety precautions in the rapidly growing use of natural gas for household heating.
The latest death case was reported from the southern Ararat region, brining to 20 the total number of officially registered fatalities. Sixteen of the deaths have occurred in December alone. Virtually all of them were caused by carbon monoxide emissions from homemade heaters used by low-income families.
The rising death toll prompted President Robert Kocharian to order urgent safety measures earlier this month. Firefighters across the country were instructed to visit gas-using households and raise public awareness of the risks involved. In addition, the government’s Emergencies Department announced on Tuesday a complete ban on homemade heating stoves widely blamed for the poisonings.
But officials admit that the measures have had little impact. “Frankly, we expect the death statistics to go up further, even though all necessary measures are being taken,” Nikolay Grigorian, a senior official at the Emergencies Department, told RFE/RL.
“People are just too careless,” Grigorian complained, saying that Armenians are often reluctant to cooperate with the firefighters and other agencies responsible for their safety. He said there is a need for a special government body tasked with enforcing safety rules.
However, many consumers say the authorities themselves did not bother to inspect their gas appliances when the heating season began. “They have collected enormous sums for restoring gas supplies,” said one woman in Yerevan. “I personally paid $400 to bring gas to my one-room apartment. But nobody has knocked on my door to see how I burn it.”
An Armenian consumer rights group similarly accused the government and Armrosgazprom gas distributor earlier this month of failing to take adequate precautions in restoring centralized gas supplies that were disrupted shortly after the Soviet collapse.
The supplies began to be restored in 1997, with Armrosgazprom building a new network of pipes and individual consumers financing a large part of the effort. The process gained momentum in 2002 and the gas operator, partly owned by Russia’s Gazprom monopoly, currently boasts 250,000 subscribers.
Many of them use Iranian or Turkish heaters that typically cost between $80 and $150 apiece. Their cost, as the death cases show, is prohibitive for many other Armenians, especially those living in rural areas. Hence, the widespread use of much cheaper homemade stoves that lack safeguards against dangerous carbon monoxide emissions.