Sick from the heat – especially high risk for city dwellers

The Midsummer is just around the corner: for some people, the high temperatures can be especially stressful. Photo: Sebastian Gollnow / dpa

If the apartment doesn’t cool down at night, your naked skin is literally on fire when you touch the concrete and doing nothing, it’s exhausting, you know: it’s full summer.

This is especially true in big cities such as Berlin. Not only is the heat extremely exhausting, it can also cause illness or even death.

Therefore, a new alliance of actions has developed heat protection plans for the Berlin health system to protect people from the health effects of extreme heat. Plans are due on Monday (13:00). Similar concepts already exist in Cologne and Mannheim.

Higher night temperatures in large cities

But why are city dwellers more exposed to the health effects of the heat? According to Jürgen Kropp, head of the Urban Transformation research group at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Potsdam, this is partly due to the so-called heat island effect. Concrete stores heat better than natural materials. As heat always flows from a warmer to a colder system, it is emitted from the overheated buildings to the surrounding air as soon as the temperature drops in the evening. Indoors, but also in large cities, the temperature is generally higher than in the countryside, even at night. During heat waves, the body’s chances of regeneration decrease.

In fact, this heat island effect has existed in the past. As the authors of the French study recalled in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, more frequent and intense heat waves increase the risk posed by city dwellers. This is a direct consequence of climate change.

On its website, the Federal Environment Agency refers to model calculations that predict for Germany that “in the future, heat-related mortality will increase by 1 to 6 percent for every one degree Celsius increase in temperature, which would correspond to more than 5,000 additional deaths per year from heat to in the middle of this century ”.

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), there is no nationwide monitoring system that records the number of heat-related deaths across Germany. According to the RKI, Berlin and Hessen estimated deaths due to the heat in 2018: According to this, around 490 people died in the capital due to the heat, and around 740 in Hessen.

heat especially for the elderly at risk

This is especially true for the elderly, says Dr. Nathalie Nidens, who works in the field of heat protection at the German Alliance for Climate Change and Health (Klug) in Berlin. This is also demonstrated by the RKI estimates for the 2018 data from Hesse and Berlin: while a total of around 12 out of 100,000 people died there from the heat, it was around 60 per 100,000 in the 75-84 age group – in people over 84 years of age, even about 300 per 100 thousand

The reason is obvious: it has to do with the natural aging process, says Nidens. Older people feel less thirsty and their circulatory system is not as efficient anymore. There is also a social aspect. Many older people live alone and have no one to help them during a heatwave, says Kluga researcher Jelka Wickham. Many homeless people in Berlin, pregnant women, infants, young children and people with pre-existing illnesses are also particularly affected.

The heat has many health effects

The range of health effects of heat is wide. From dizziness and fatigue to foot swelling and, in extreme cases, even death, the doctor explains. “For example, during periods of intense heat, the risk of a heart attack increases, and a heart attack can also be associated with permanent disability,” says Nidens.

The question then arises: what can particularly affected cities do? “One of the aspects is certainly to provide cities with vegetation” – says prof. PIK Kropp. This is because plants – especially trees – evaporate the water and thus cool their immediate surroundings. For example, the German Nature Conservation Union (Nabu) has repeatedly drawn attention to the positive effects of green roofs or facades.

Kropp mentions wooden construction as another measure. Wood is an insulator and does not transmit the absorbed heat so much to the interior. This can be used to construct office buildings with heights above 80 to 100 meters.

Wickham is also in favor of expanding green spaces and changing the city’s infrastructure. However, he points out that these are long-term measures that will take a long time to implement. Therefore, short-term solutions are needed. This mainly includes informing the public and involving the health care system, such as doctors’ offices and care facilities, says Wickham. But it is also important to use drinking water dispensers or to designate cool places in the city.

Wickham emphasizes: “All of these measures merely compensate for what went wrong previously. We have caused climate change and that means we must now take steps to remedy this error that does not make the original problem worse. ‘

However, the health effects of heat are only one aspect of many of the consequences of climate change. Scientists have repeatedly emphasized that extreme heat waves in different regions of the world can lead to drought and thus malnutrition. The consequences can include increased migration, for example when regions are no longer habitable.

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