Sick from heat - particularly high risk for city dwellers

If the apartment doesn’t cool down at night, your bare skin literally burns when you touch the concrete and just doing nothing exhausts you, you know: midsummer is here.

It is particularly noticeable in big cities like Berlin. Heat is not only extremely exhausting – it can also make you ill or even fatal.

Therefore, a new action alliance has developed heat protection plans for the health care system in Berlin to protect people from the health consequences of extreme heat. The plans are expected to be unveiled this Monday. Similar concepts already exist in Cologne and Mannheim.

Higher temperatures at night in big cities

But why do city dwellers have an increased risk of suffering from the health effects of 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 urban heat island effect. Concrete stores heat better than natural materials. Because heat always flows from a warmer to a colder system, it is emitted from overheated buildings into the ambient air as soon as the temperatures drop in the evening. Then 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 recovery are reduced.

In principle, this heat island effect already existed in the past. As the authors of a French study in the “International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health” mention, more frequent and more intense heat waves increase the risk for city dwellers posed by the effect. 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 over 5,000 additional deaths per year from heat by the middle of this year century».

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

A risk, especially for older people

This affects older people in particular, says doctor 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 shown by the RKI’s estimates of the figures from Hesse and Berlin from 2018: while a total of around 12 out of 100,000 people died there due to heat, it was around 60 out of 100,000 in the 75 to 84 age group – in the over 84 -year-olds even around 300 out of 100,000.

The reason is obvious: it has to do with the natural aging process, says Nidens. Older people have a lower sense of thirst, their circulatory system is no longer as efficient. There is also the social aspect. Many older people live alone and have no one to help them during the heatwave, says Klug researcher Jelka Wickham. The many homeless people in Berlin, pregnant women, infants, small children and those with previous illnesses are also particularly affected.

Heat has many health effects

The range of health effects of heat is wide. It ranges from dizziness and exhaustion to swelling in the feet and, in extreme cases, even death, explains the doctor. “In periods of intense heat, for example, the risk of heart attacks increases, and a heart attack can also be associated with permanent disabilities,” says Nidens.

So now the question arises: What can the particularly affected cities do? “One aspect is certainly providing the cities with vegetation,” says PIK Professor Kropp. This is because plants – especially trees – evaporate water and thus cool their immediate surroundings. The German Nature Conservation Union (Nabu), for example, repeatedly points out the positive effects of green roofs or facades.

Kropp mentions timber construction as another measure. Wood is an insulator and does not give off the absorbed heat to the interior as much. This could be used to build office buildings that are higher than 80 to 100 meters.

Wickham is also in favor of expanding green spaces and changing the city infrastructure. However, she notes that these are long-term measures that will take a long time to be implemented. That’s why short-term solutions are needed. This includes, above all, informing the population and involving the healthcare system, such as medical practices and care facilities, says Wickham. But the use of drinking water dispensers or the designation of cool places in the city is also important.

Wickham emphasizes: “All these measures are only a compensation for what went wrong before. We caused climate change and that means we have to see that we now take measures to correct this error that do not aggravate the original problem.”

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

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