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Wednesday, 22 November, 2000, 03:43 GMT
Deaths from heatstroke 'set to double'
sunbather in St James' Park, London
Some like it hot: Experts say too much sun could kill you
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby in The Hague

The number of people at risk of death from heatstroke and similar complaints may double by 2020, experts say.

The World Meteorological Organisation says 3-4,000 US citizens could be at risk annually.

The WMO says the risk will rise as temperatures climb because of climate change. It wants warnings of hot weather publicised, to try to minimise the risk.

The WMO secretary-general, Professor Godwin Obasi, told journalists attending the UN climate conference here of his fears.

view of Philadelphia
Philadelphia is one of eight cities to have a heat warning system

"In 15 US mega-cities, deaths from heatstroke during an average summer have risen significantly in the last decade," he said.

"They have now reached about 1,500. But our projection is that by 2020 there could be 3-4,000 deaths in the US alone.

"Mega-cities are increasing throughout the world, and you could expect this to happen elsewhere. But in less well-informed societies than the US, people may not be aware of the risk."

Hot weather warnings

The WMO wants weather forecasts to include hot weather warnings, so that people can protect themselves.

Studies show that the danger level at which the death rate begins to climb is 33 degrees Celsius in a city like Rome, but below that in more northerly cities, such as Toronto.

Some researchers believe heat-induced deaths already number tens of thousands worldwide each year, and say that figure could double in 20 years.

One of eight cities in the world to have a heat warning system, Philadelphia in the US, believes it is saving about 300 lives annually, according to Professor Laurence Kalkstein of the University of Delaware.

view of Shanghai
Deaths from heatstroke are expected to rise in Shanghai

"Behaviour patterns are important," he said.

"In Arizona at noon when it is hot people stay indoors. But in London it might be seen as an opportunity to play tennis. It could be fatal above a certain temperature, but as yet we do not know what that is for London. But there will be one, and you are increasingly likely to reach it as the weather gets warmer."

Feeling the heat

Researchers have found that it is the rapidity of temperature rise that often kills. In New York, the normal summer temperature ranges from 28 to 30 degrees Celsius. But when it suddenly reached 40 degrees one summer, people died very quickly.

"It is not the hottest places on Earth that exhibit the greatest numbers of heat-related deaths and illnesses," Professor Kalkstein said. "In fact, it is weather variability rather than heat intensity that is the most important factor in defining human sensitivity to heat."

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that four-day heatwaves have become nearly three times more frequent in the last half century.

Killer heatwaves

In a statement released at the conference, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) say US heatwaves killed more people than hurricanes, flooding or tornadoes annually in the decade to 1998.

Karen Hopfl-Harris of PSR said: "This serious threat to human mortality and well-being is all the incentive delegates at The Hague should need to negotiate a climate agreement resulting in real carbon reductions that will help to curb this trend".

The group says the most heat-vulnerable cities include Shanghai, Rome and Chicago.

For Shanghai, it says, the present summer average of about 400 deaths a year will increase by 2050 to over 1,000, and in Cairo the rise could be from 280 to about 1,000.

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See also:

21 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
US climate plan 'unacceptable'
07 Jul 00 | Health
The health risks of a heatwave
06 Jul 00 | Europe
Dozens die in Balkan heatwave
29 Jun 99 | Medical notes
Heatstroke
11 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Clinton's climate change warning
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