Monday, June 05, 2017

Heat waves are dangerous in more ways than one

Dr. Jeff Masters · June 5, 2017


Research into heat-wave disasters of the last 20 years, including the catastrophic heat wave that struck Europe in 2003 that killed 71,310 people, has shown that prolonged heat takes its toll in several ways. For years, researchers focused on the heat itself: if people are unable to find relief from high temperatures, especially over a string of hot nights, their body temperatures can rise to the level where deadly heat stroke becomes a real risk.

It’s now clear that high temperatures can team up with poor air quality to make heat waves even more dangerous. In the 2003 European heat wave, up to 40% of the “excess deaths” in some regions (the number of deaths beyond those one would normally get at a certain time of year) were attributed to ozone and/or particulate pollution. These pollutants not only affect our respiratory systems, but the tiniest particles can also work their way into our bloodstreams, raising the risk of heart attacks and strokes in the long term, and even during one-off heat waves for folks who are especially vulnerable. A study of several heat waves in nine European cities found that respiratory-related death rates increased by anywhere from 4% in Munich to 67% in Rome, while cardiovascular deaths rose by an estimated 8% in Munich and 38% in Rome.

There's a lot that each of us can do to protect our health from the impacts of air pollution. To cite just one example we discussed last month, running your car's ventilation system in "recirculation" mode can make a big difference when you are driving. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has many other tips on protecting indoor air quality, minimizing the impact of outdoor air pollution on your health, and reducing outdoor air pollution where you live and work.


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