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Is this the right response to the impact of a heatwave on our bodies

Patrick Mooney asks whether we are tackling the current heatwave and its impact on our bodies with sufficient speed and the right kit?

Scorching temperatures across the world in recent weeks are demonstrating the very real dangers of global warming and the existential challenges it poses to mankind.

It also raises questions about the best methods for keeping our homes cool and comfortable places, particularly in the hotter summer months. Essentially are we doing enough to keep ourselves safe?

New reports issued on housing conditions in England and on the impact of last summer’s heatwave in Europe suggests that many of us are failing to take the risks seriously enough.

The actions we are taking are likely to prove inadequate

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney News editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine

Excess deaths from heat

Public health experts in Europe have worked out that 61,672 people died of heat-related causes in Europe between 30 May and 4 September 2022. The mortality rate was highest in the popular holiday destinations of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

“There are people that would have died anyway, but those are not counted with this methodology,” said Joan Ballester, an associate research professor in climate and health at Barcelona Institute for Global Health and lead author of the study. “We are talking about people for whom the occurrence of these temperatures triggered their death.”

Only a small share of heat-related deaths come from heatstroke. In most cases, it is hot weather that kills people by stopping the body from coping with existing health problems like heart and lung disease, diabetes and obesity.

In every week of summer 2022, the study found, average temperatures in Europe “uninterruptedly” exceeded the baseline values of the previous three decades. The most intense heat hit from 18 to 24 July, when it killed 11,637 people.

Lack of respite

There are particular problems when temperatures remain high after dark and our bodies get no respite during the night. Mortality rates increase markedly during long spells of hot weather, when night-time temperatures remain in the high 20s and even top 30 degrees.

In a stark warning to world leaders issued just days ago on 17 July, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, wrote on Twitter: “In many parts of the world, today is predicted to be the hottest day on record. And these records have already been broken a few times this year. Heatwaves put our health and lives at risk. The #ClimateCrisis is not a warning. It’s happening. I urge world leaders to act now.”

Yet the actions we are taking are likely to prove inadequate.

Experts say heat exhaustion and heatstroke are likely to become more common as the impacts of climate change grow more and more extreme.

Heatstroke is the most serious heat-related illness and happens when the body loses its ability to sweat.

Being able to cool down in the summer months is particularly important for older households who are more at risk of ill-health due to excessive heat, but it can also be of great significance to the very young and those with physical disabilities or in poor health.

Domestic householders’ responses

The English Housing Survey carries out annual studies of the nation’s housing and residents’ views. For the latest report (on 2021/22) it interviewed thousands of homeowners and tenants, asking them what methods they used to cool down their homes.

The most common methods of keeping cool were opening the windows (93%), switching on the fan (52%), closing the curtains (50%), and closing the blinds (38%).

The least common methods were closing the shutters (9%), switching on the air conditioner (3%) and unrolling the awning or canopy (2%).

Overall, therefore, the majority of households (97%) mentioned using non-mechanical methods of keeping cool and over half (53%) mentioned using a mechanical appliance to keep their homes cooler

Owners and tenants act alike

There were few differences by tenure with owner occupiers (97%) more likely to use non-mechanical methods to keep cool than private renters (96%). More specifically, owner occupiers were more likely to mention closing the shutters (11%) than private (8%), local authority (6%) and housing association renters (5%).

They were also more likely to mention that they closed their curtains to keep cool (52%) than private (45%), local authority (44%) and housing association renters (42%),

As for mechanical methods of keeping cool, local authority and housing association renters (55% and 54%, respectively) were more likely to switch on their fans compared with private renters (49%) while using the air con was more likely to be reported by owner occupiers (3%) than housing association renters (2%).

If the temperatures and associated death tolls reported in Europe continue their migration northwards into the UK, then we will inevitably have to consider employing more mechanical methods for cooling our homes – such as air conditioners and fans, supported by external shutters and awnings or canopies to prevent the suns rays penertrating the interior.

Mechanical methods of cooling our homes will have a greater impact in properties with higher levels of insulation in their walls, roofs and around their windows and doors. Ironically it is the warmest houses in winter that are also the coolest homes in the summer.

But in order to run mechanical devices safely and for longer periods without adding to global warming, we need greater access to green energy (from wind farms and solar panels) produced and sold at affordable prices.

Women particularly at risk

In a separate study to the European one cited above, Ana Maria Vicedo-Cabrera, the head of the climate and health research group at the University of Berne, claimed the true death tolls may be 10-50% higher.

Both studies found that women, and particularly older women, died at higher rates than men. Pollution from burning fossil fuels and destroying nature upped the death toll, the Berne research also showed. “We found 60% of the observed deaths can be attributed to climate change,” said Vicedo-Cabrera.

In a linked development, more than 2,000 senior women in Switzerland have taken their federal government to the European Court of Human Rights for failing to do enough to stop global warming – citing the risk to their own health from heatwaves.

For the climate change sceptics, Christopher Hewitt, director of climate services at the World Meteorlogical Organisation had some sobering words of warning.

“We are in uncharted territory and we can expect more records to fall as El Niño develops further and these impacts will extend into 2024. This is worrying news for the planet.”

He underlined the scale of the problem we face by revealing that global sea surface temperatures were at record highs for the time of the year both in May and June. “It is not only the surface temperature, but the whole ocean is becoming warmer and absorbing energy that will remain there for hundreds of years.”

It is at times like this that I seriously wonder why we are not doing more to clean up our energy production and make our homes and workplaces more energy efficient, with greener systems for both heating and cooling.

Patrick Mooney is news editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine