The world is burning. This is not just a saying, rather a fact we witness daily due to climate change. Heat now is threatening human health and is causing more deaths than hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods in most years, creating a new public health dilemma. This issue made health scientists raise a serious awareness call.
Researchers say it's important to understand that climate change is already affecting our lives today - unless climate resiliency or heat action plans are put in place, particularly in historically marginalized communities, multiple people will suffer and die from extreme heat.
A 2020 analysis found that the number of heat-related deaths in the US each year has been underestimated, since records typically only look at medical terms such as heat stroke, and neglect other potentially heat-related causes of death, like heart attacks and other underlying conditions.
Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists has stated recently to CNN: “If nothing is done, and people continue to be vulnerable, the number of people affected would go up.” Caldas called for the need to “have an idea of what could happen if we don't act. It's about trying to prevent what can happen if we don't take any action.”
Hospital admissions because of heat-related illnesses have increased lately worldwide, as well as cardiovascular and respiratory disorders. Climate change as the latest studies reveal is affecting human health through the accelerating increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events.
The heatwaves and wildfires that swept across southern Europe and the USA this summer have been traumatic and deadly. 600 excess deaths were reported in the Pacific Northwest in the USA alone.
In addition to the above, some statistical approaches estimated that more than 1,300 deaths per year in the United States are due to extreme heat, compared with about 600 deaths per year in the “underlying and contributing causes”.
According to the Sixth Assessment Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1·5°C of warming, averaged over the next 20 years. (The Panel synthesizes the latest scientific evidence on climate change,)The report predicts that these record-breaking temperatures will be more frequent, intense, and last longer because of human-induced climate change.
Increases in the overall temperature of the atmosphere and oceans associated with climate change, cause changes in wind, moisture, and heat circulation patterns. These changes contribute to shifts in extreme weather events, including extreme heat events.
Effects from extreme heat are also associated with increased hospitalizations and emergency room visits, increased death tolls from cardiorespiratory diseases, mental health issues, adverse pregnancy, and birth outcomes, and increased healthcare costs as well.
The consequences of climate change, which have started to affect human health, made leading experts to call on for moves to control the situation. Academics from Loughborough University stated that the hot future requires urgent planning and more investment in research to reduce the risks of heat-related disease and death.
EFFECT OF HEAT ON HEALTH
A two-part series on heat and health published in The Lancet warned that heat-related morbidity and mortality will likely increase if investment in evidence-based research and risk-management strategies are not stepped up.
The series brought together academic experts from epidemiology, physiology, medicine, climate science, built environment, and sustainable development with contributions from 15 authors from eight countries spanning four continents.
A two-part modeling study by Katrin Burkart and colleagues from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study is the first comprehensive analysis of the global cause-specific temperature-attributable burden of deaths.
Analyses of data from 65 million deaths and temperature estimates in nine countries indicate that extreme heat and cold are associated with 17 causes of death—largely cardiorespiratory or metabolic disease, but also suicide and several types of injury.
The authors estimated that 1·7 million deaths worldwide in 2019 were linked to extreme heat and cold (356 000 were related to heat). Although these global estimates carry inherent uncertainties, the study shows the importance of temperature as a global health risk factor and provides valuable data to assist policymakers and others in planning interventions.
CDC RINGS CAUTION BELLS
Danger of heat extreme on health is well described by Gregory Wellenius, Boston University professor of environmental health and director of BU’s Program on Climate and Health, who stated: “Hot days can lead people to suffer from dehydration, heat exhaustion, and in extreme cases, heat stroke. But hot days are also associated with higher risk of a number of other conditions that are not typically thought to be “heat-related,” such as kidney problems, skin infections, and preterm birth among pregnant women. Heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and dehydration account for a relatively small fraction of the total health risks associated with days of extreme heat. And interestingly, it’s not just extreme heat that poses a risk. Even moderately hot days can place vulnerable individuals at higher risk.”
Wellenius warned of health risks of extreme heat that are “real and important”. He recommended that individuals should stay out of the sun as much as possible, drink a lot of water, and find places to cool off when needed.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington assured that extreme heat events can be dangerous to health – even fatal. As papers issued by CDC clarified the consequences saying that extreme heat can trigger a variety of heat stress conditions, such as heat stroke, the most serious heat-related disorder, according to medical reports.
It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature. Body temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body cannot cool down. This condition can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given.
Small children, the elderly, and certain other groups including people with chronic diseases, low-income populations, and outdoor workers are at higher risk for heat-related illness.
Higher temperatures and respiratory problems are also linked. One reason is that higher temperatures contribute to the build-up of harmful air pollutions.
Many cities across the United States, including St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cincinnati, have seen large increases in death rates during heat waves.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM EXTREME HEAT EVENTS?
While many communities have programs to address climate-sensitive, CDC urged authorities to take actions to make communities less vulnerable to climate change impacts.
CDC also recommended approaches for staying safe, and managing the health threats associated with extreme heat:
- Heatwave early warning systems can protect people by communicating heatwave risks and suggesting protective actions. These warning systems are much less costly than treating and coping with heat illnesses.
- Heat alerts serve as triggers for cities and counties to take preventive action, like opening cooling centers where the public can gather for relief from the heat.
- Air-conditioning is the number one protective factor against extreme heat, which is an essential health resource for vulnerable populations.
- Staying hydrated and avoiding strenuous outdoor exercise during heat alerts can protect individuals from adverse effects of extreme heat.
- Providing easy access to public drinking fountains, swimming pools, and spray pads can help keep people cool during periods of extreme heat.
- Updating building codes and landscaping laws can increase energy efficiency. It also improves the ability of buildings to provide protection against extreme heat events. For example, green roofs (roofs with plant cover) and strategically located shade trees can reduce indoor temperatures and improve buildings’ energy efficiency.
- Urban forests, including street trees and wooded areas, can mitigate urban heat islands, reducing local air temperatures by up to 9°F.