Hundreds of Thousands of People Dying From Preventable Heat-Related Causes

As global warming intensifies and deadly heatwaves spread across the world, becoming the “new normal,” the World Meteorological Organization is calling on governments to adopt heat action plans to protect “hundreds of thousands of people dying from preventable heat-related causes each year.”

WMO’s protective policies incorporate early warning and response systems for urban and nonurban settings that target vulnerable people and critical support infrastructure such as power lines, refrigeration units, roads and rail lines that often buckle under extreme heatwaves.

“Worldwide, more intense and extreme heat is unavoidable,” said John Nairn, senior extreme heat adviser. He said it was imperative to prepare and adapt as cities, homes and workplaces are not built to withstand prolonged high temperatures “and vulnerable people are not sufficiently aware of the seriousness of the risk heat poses to their health and well-being.”

A study published last week in the scientific journal Nature Medicine found more than 60,000 people died in Europe last year from heat-related causes.

Nairn said experts and governments consider this a conservative estimate. “And it is worth noting, those numbers are for Europe, which has some of the strongest early warning systems and heat-health action plans in the world.

“So, you can imagine what the numbers are likely to be globally,” he said.

Heatwaves to be expected

Scientists say global temperatures are at unprecedented levels. While this year’s extensive and intense heatwaves are alarming, they say this should come as no surprise as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been warning of multiple hazards over the next two decades if global temperatures climb 1.5 degrees Celsius or more.

Meteorologists forecast temperatures in North America, Asia, and across North Africa and the Mediterranean will rise above 40 degrees Celsius for a prolonged number of days this week as heat waves intensify.

“These types of events are very concerning and have increased sixfold since the 1980s,” said Nairn.

Minimum temperatures, which are expected to reach new highs, he said, are particularly dangerous for human health because the body is unable to recover from hot days, “leading to increased cases of heart attacks and death.”

“Whilst most of the attention focuses on daytime maximum temperatures, it is the overnight temperatures which have the biggest health risks, especially for vulnerable populations,” he said.  

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies calls heatwaves “an invisible killer.” According to the IFRC World Disasters Report, climate and weather-related disasters have killed more than 400,000 people worldwide in the past 10 years.

Panu Saaristo, IFRC emergency health unit team leader for the Europe region, noted that the continent was experiencing hotter and hotter temperatures for longer stretches of time every summer.

“Seven countries across southern Europe have issued ‘red’ warnings for heat waves for the coming days, with temperatures likely to stay above average into August,” he said, noting that “infants, the elderly and chronic health conditions are at particular risk.”

Causes of heat-related deaths

Saaristo said most heat-related deaths do not occur because of heatstroke, but because of the impact heatwaves have on people with pre-existing conditions.  

“Extreme heat can worsen cardiovascular and respiratory diseases,” although he added that death was not a foregone conclusion.

“Deaths from heat waves can be greatly reduced with relatively simple solutions,” he said. “Red Cross societies around Europe are implementing these simple, low-cost actions all over Europe.”

For example, he said the Italian Red Cross was checking on elderly people by telephone to make sure they were safe from extreme heat. The Portuguese and French Red Cross societies, he said, were sharing practical tips through social media, telling people they must never leave children or animals in parked cars.

He said other potentially lifesaving actions include handing out drinking water so people do not become dehydrated, opening shelters so people can cool off and reminding people impacted by wildfires “to protect themselves from breathing in wildfire smoke, which can aggravate pre-existing health conditions and be dangerous.”

The WMO and IFRC agree that heat is a rapidly growing health risk due to rapid urbanization, increased high temperature extremes and an aging population. The United Nations reports that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and that this is expected to increase to two-thirds by 2050.

“Now is the time for cities to incorporate heat-reduction measures in their strategy, planning for more green spaces in their cities,” said Saaristo.

The IPCC says limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2 degrees Celsius “could result in around 420 million fewer people being frequently exposed to extreme heat waves.”

WMO’s heat adviser Nairn said a major way to address climate change is to “electrify everything. It is a simple way to stop global warming.” 

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