Regular heatwaves: a hazard to health

7,000 more people could die per year due to increased temperatures by 2050, says a new report by the Health Protection Agency. It found that if no changes are made there could be a rise of 257% in heat-related deaths. So should we be worried? Well, the study found that London, the Midlands and the east were most affected and that the elderly were most vulnerable. In the 2003 heatwave, 27% of heat-related deaths across the UK were seen in Norfolk. So, the impact here has the potential to be significant, although not especially to the student community.

However, the projection of an additional 7,000 deaths per year is based on no adaptations being made to combat the heat. Human behaviours and government policies do have the potential to significantly reduce this number. But with one study predicting ambient departure rises of up to 6.8 degrees by 2080 more needs to be done than some late night electric fan purchases.

Recommendations have been made as to methods for reducing heat-related mortality, such as the widespread introduction of air-conditioning. But even this has many downfalls. It would magnify the already problematic urban heat island effect seen in large cities like London and is likely to create a social disparity, as wealthier individuals are more able to pay for air-conditioning. A more sustainable method is to change building regulations so that new buildings are more like that seen in southern European countries with designs that promote airflow and cooler indoor spaces without the need for air-conditioning. Although this would take decades to become widespread.

But why is the heat killing us? Most research has failed to come up with a clear answer. One study suggested that during heatwaves people deteriorate faster and are less able to seek medical assistance meaning they die before they present for care. Another study theorised that respiratory diseases are more susceptible to exacerbation under extreme heats. More research is clearly needed to understand why in order to reduce that 7,000 number and allow us to enjoy the hot summers worry free.


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January 2022
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