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European countries recorded thousands more deaths during last month’s brutal heatwave, preliminary data shows.
Temperatures across much of the continent soared in the middle of last month, breaking records between July 18 and July 20.
The UK recorded 40 degrees Celsius for the first time that week, during a heatwave said has been made at least 10 times more likely by climate change. Europe has sunk deeper into drought, wildfires have ravaged thousands of hectares of forest and air pollution has increased.
The heat wave also coincided with a significant increase in the number of deaths, according to POLITICO’s analysis of data released by several national statistics offices.
Germany, where temperatures reached 40C as far north as Hamburg, saw a particularly steep rise, figures released this week showed.
Excluding deaths attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, the country recorded more than 3,000 excess deaths the week of July 18 compared to the past five years.
There is no doubt that extreme heat is deadly, but counting the victims is difficult.
The excess mortality does not represent an exact number of deaths from the heat wave, and experts warn that it takes detailed analysis – over months or years – to determine how many people have died.
In many EU countries, including Germany, “the problem is that, unlike [coronavirus]heat is not recorded as a factor in a person’s death,” said Stefan Muthers of the German Meteorological Service’s Center for Medical and Meteorological Research.
But mortality data can give a good idea of the impact. Muthers, co-author of a major recent study of heat-related mortality in Germany, believes a link between last month’s spike in deaths and scorching temperatures is very likely.
“Given the correlation with time and with what was expected – that with the heat wave, mortality would increase – I am sure that a more detailed analysis will confirm that the peaks visible in this period are clearly related to the heat wave. , ” he said.
Spain and Portugal also saw an increase in excess deaths in mid-July, with death data peaking in the week starting July 11, when several days saw temperatures of 45C in parts of the Iberian Peninsula.
Excluding COVID, Spain recorded more than 2,700 excess deaths over the five-year average during the week of July 11 and almost 2,500 the following week. Portugal recorded 662 excess non-coronavirus deaths in the week of July 11 and 234 the following week.
But unlike most countries, Spain and Portugal directly attribute some deaths to heat, meaning there are official statistics on the death toll. For the period from July 11 to 24, the Spanish monitoring system lists 1,682 heat-related deaths, while Portuguese health chief Graça Freitas said more than 1,000 people died between July 7 and July 18. These figures may still be updated.
The death of a street cleaner, who collapsed on Madrid’s scorching pavement, has galvanized attention in Spain. But fatal heatstroke is only responsible for a small fraction of heat-related deaths, Muthens said.
Most often, heat stress and dehydration aggravate pre-existing conditions – including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases – but also other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The increased risk of accidents is another factor. Scientists who found the UK heat wave had been made 10 times more likely by climate change also found more than a dozen drowning deaths as people sought to calm down, although the UK statistics office warnings that such incidents must be investigated before an attribution can be made.
In the Netherlands, where city authorities had to cool bridges with water to keep them functional during the hottest days of the heat wave, authorities recorded 559 additional non-coronavirus deaths compared to the past five years.
The National Institute of Health RIVM Talk about a “serious increase” in mid-July. But excess mortality has been high for months in the Netherlands – with the statistics office admitting in June, they did not know why, which made it difficult to assess the impact of the heat wave. The RIVM did not respond to questions.
The persistent excess mortality also darkened the picture across the Channel.
According to data released by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) on Tuesday, England and Wales together recorded 1,180 additional non-coronavirus deaths in the week when the all-time heat record of the country was defeated.
But excess mortality was just as high, if not higher, throughout the spring and summer, and the weekly breakdown is further complicated by a sharp drop in data, which the ONS said was linked to the long weekend Jubilee holiday.
All data is provisional and other countries, including France and Italy, will publish statistics towards the end of the summer.
Researchers also still don’t know to what extent some heat-related deaths would have simply occurred weeks later and how that might affect estimates of heat-related mortality, Muthers said: “It remains an open question. “.
Yet with figures pointing to several thousand deaths in a single hot week, the data is a stark reminder of the consequences of climate change.
Scientists say every heat wave now occurring has been made more likely and more intense by climate change, and that such extremes will occur more often and with greater intensity as global warming progresses.
“Heat waves are getting more and more frequent, we see that very clearly,” Muthers said. “Including in mortality data from recent years – there are more and more years in which many more people die during heat waves.”
But much of Europe is still unprepared for what is to come. In Germany, few municipalities have heat action plans in place.
“This next step is up to the politicians. We inform, we warn, but that alone will not be enough,” Muthers said. “Linked to that, we need measures to mitigate this health threat. , is only beginning to pass.
Cornelius Hirsch contributed reporting.
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