Experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) say heat-related deaths will become the norm, exacerbating the need for adequate climate and public health measures.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that more than 4,500 people died in England due to high temperatures in 2022. Last year was the sixth warmest since 1850, according to Met Office records.
The highest mortality risk was in London for temperatures exceeding 29°C. This was three times the risk at optimal temperatures. However, all regions showed increased mortality risk for temperatures greater than 22°C.
The ONS statistics date back to 1988 and suggest that an estimated 51,670 deaths in England, and 2,186 deaths in Wales, were associated with the hottest days over the 35 years from 1988 to 2022.
Gillian Flower, Statistician, ONS said the analysis shows that historically in England, very low temperatures were responsible for a greater number of deaths than very high temperatures, but “over recent years, there is some indication that heat related deaths have increased”.
Dr Agostinho Sousa, Consultant in Public Health Medicine working across extreme events and health protection at the UK Health Security Agency, explained the physical impact of extreme heat.
He said: “At 27°C or over, people with impaired sweating mechanisms find it especially difficult to keep their bodies cool, for example, the very young; people with long-term health conditions or older people, particularly people taking certain medications.
“Heat can also exacerbate long-term cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, but equally increase the chances of other serious and sudden health issues such as heart attacks, strokes or breathing problems.”
“During periods of hot weather last year, we saw thousands of heat-related deaths…also leading to significant pressure on our health and care services.”
Dr Sousa said that the impacts on mortality during periods of hot weather are generally seen within 24 hours of the onset of high temperatures, with daily deaths increasing as the temperature increases and then falling back as temperatures fall back to their average levels.”
He warned about the impact on public health should hot periods become the norm. “During periods of hot weather last year, we saw thousands of heat-related deaths, each one a human tragedy, also leading to significant pressure on our health and care services.”
Professor Antonio Gasparrini of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), who worked on the ONS report, called it a “stark warning”.
He said: “The result is expected, given the fact that London usually experiences higher summer temperatures than other places, in addition to the phenomenon of ‘heat island effect’ in densely populated and urbanised areas, which can increase personal exposure to heat even further.
“The other highlight is the fact that heat-related deaths seem to show an increase over time. Again, this is not unexpected given the increase in temperature during the years and the extreme heatwaves that have occurred more frequently.
“This will become the norm due to climate change and it makes even more urgent the need to implement adequate climate and public health measures.”
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