Heat kills – no event makes that clearer than the heat wave in August 2003. In twelve affected European countries, a total of around 70,000 people died as a result of the heat, as researchers reported in a Lancet study. According to estimates by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), 9,600 people died in Germany in this “summer of the century”. These are estimates because there is no nationwide monitoring system in Germany that records heat-related deaths.
In France, 15,000 heat-related deaths were recorded in the same year. The peak of mortality in France was even higher than in the first corona wave, according to data from the French statistics agency. The summer of 2003 was one of the deadliest natural disasters in Europe in the past 100 years.
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Since then, heat researchers have been observing the phenomenon every summer, reports “Die Zeit”. The RKI estimates that around 490 people died in Berlin in the summer of 2018 due to the effects of heat. There are no more recent figures. According to calculations by Die Zeit, up to 2,000 more people died from heat in 2018 than in road traffic all year round. While regulations would have reduced road deaths, such rules for dealing with the heat were lacking.
This could also be due to the fact that “heat death” is not a standardized diagnosis. Officially, nobody dies from “heat”, just as smokers do not die from cigarettes, but from lung cancer caused by smoking. It is “heat stress” that 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 in Berlin. The circulatory system of older people is no longer as efficient and they also feel less thirsty. In addition, many older people have no one who could help them in the heat.
Pre-ill people, pregnant women, infants and small children as well as homeless people are also affected by the deadly danger of the heat. “The danger increases when the 30-degree threshold is exceeded for several days in a row and heat waves determine the weather,” physiologist Hanns-Christian Gunga told the Tagesspiegel. There is no cooling at night either. Often there are tropical nights with 20 degrees and more.
The range of health effects of heat is wide. According to Nidens, it ranges from dizziness and exhaustion to swelling of the feet and, in extreme cases, death. In periods of extreme heat, the risk of heart attacks or kidney damage also increases – the excessive sweating and the often low water and electrolyte intake lead to this.
The problem is likely to get worse, not only because there will be more hot days in the future due to climate change, but also because Germans are getting older, as time summarizes. The federal government expects up to 8,500 additional heat-related deaths annually by the end of the century. The Federal Environment Agency forecasts for Germany “that in the future an increase in heat-related mortality of one to six percent per degree Celsius increase in temperature can be expected. This would correspond to over 5,000 additional deaths per year from heat by the middle of this century”.
In 2017, i.e. 14 years after the “summer of the century”, the Federal Environment Ministry and the federal states presented “Recommendations for the preparation of heat action plans to protect human health”. It states, among other things, that a central coordination office at the state level should support the municipalities and districts in the creation of heat protection plans. All authorities and rescue services, hospitals and nursing homes as well as kindergartens and schools should use the German Weather Service’s warning system against heat. In addition, schedules should be drawn up on how the population is warned.
As the Zeit research shows: The recommendations for action are hardly followed. All federal states and 400 districts nationwide were surveyed. Around 80 percent of the 299 districts that answered the questions of the time have not developed a heat protection concept or heat action plans. Ninety percent of the administrations that responded could not even quantify how many people in their area are at risk on extremely hot days. With the exception of North Rhine-Westphalia, no state has set up a central coordination office as agreed in 2017.