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Cold-Related Deaths Decline as Heat Waves Become More Deadly

As the UK braces for record temperatures, data on extreme-heat related mortality offers a stark warning, reports Sian Norris

Firefighters tackle a wildfire in Wales in 2019. Photo: Gareth Llewelyn/Alamy

Cold-Related Deaths Decline as Heat Waves Become More Deadly

As the UK braces for record temperatures, data on extreme-heat related mortality offers a stark warning, reports Sian Norris

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Reductions in the number of people dying from cold-weather related conditions are set to be outweighed by extreme heat related deaths, as the climate crisis causes more intense heat waves in the UK.

Britain faces record temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius this week, with the Met Office issuing its first ever red warning. The previous hottest temperature recorded in the UK was 38.7 degrees, in Cambridge in 2019. 

Milder winters and warmer homes have led to a decrease in cold-related deaths over the decades, although deaths related to the cold remain high. Data published in 2020 found that during the previous winter, 8,500 people died in England and Wales due to cold homes.

Now extreme heat risks becoming the more lethal weather. 

Globally, climate change linked to human activity has been estimated to account for 37% of heat-related deaths (1% in the UK.) Scientists believe that human-induced climate change will lead to 257% extra heat-related deaths by the 2050s, compared to a 2% decline in cold-related deaths. 

Extreme heat is linked to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, as well as injury and violence. The risk of death for patients with mental illnesses increased by approximately 5% for every 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature. 

Certain medications for mental health diagnoses may increase the relative risk of death by 7% to 8% per 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature, when the temperatures go above 18 degrees. People with mental health conditions may also struggle to self-care appropriately in extreme weather.

Despite the serious threat of extreme heat to health, there has been unclear guidance from the Government on how the public should respond. Speaking to Sky News on Sunday morning, the Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said Brits should “enjoy the sunshine and be resilient”, while health experts warn people to remain indoors and stay hydrated. 

Emergency COBRA meetings have been convened to respond to the emergency, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed Saturday’s conference in favour of a party at his country home in Chequers. He skipped Monday’s meeting to attend an airshow

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Heat Wave Deaths

Data from the Office For National Statistics shows that, over the past few years, more people die on the days designated as heat waves by Public Health England. 

A report published in 2019 concluded that “at a daily level, extreme heat seems to have an impact on the number of deaths, but across the summer period as a whole the number of deaths is similar to previous years. This could be because the most vulnerable people, for example, those with pre-existing respiratory or cerebrovascular diseases are more susceptible to death during heatwaves”.

Public Health England reports on the number of excess deaths during heat waves. In 2020, it recorded three heat waves – between 23-27 June; 30 July-1 August; 5-15 August. Across these three periods of extreme heat, there were 2,556 excess deaths. This data was across all ages. 

The year previously, Public Health England recorded excess mortality for the 65+ age group and found that there were 892 excess deaths during heat waves. This was an increase from 2018 (863 deaths) and 2017 (778 deaths), but less than what was seen in 2016 (908 deaths), and the unusual heat waves in 2006 (2,323 deaths) and 2003 (2,234 deaths).

Alongside rising deaths, hot weather is linked to an increase in hospitalisations. ONS data recorded that there were 108,722 extra hospitalisation episodes associated with warm days compared with the baseline of 12,086 per year. These hospitalisations were a result of people struggling with cardiovascular and respiratory illness, mental ill-health, injuries and violent behaviour. 

“Global projections of heat-related deaths because of climate change and our results suggest that climate change will have negative impacts to human health in the UK in the future,” the ONS report authors warned. “It will be important to develop more sensitive measures of the health impacts, for instance on mental health and chronic illnesses”.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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