Thursday, March 30

More heat, more disease | Today

Social aging and climate change threaten a new health crisis

In the end, everything is known. The Spanish health authorities spent the summer of 2003 hiding the thousands of deaths caused by the brutal heat wave that hit Europe. France recognized more than 15,000 fatalities as a result of high temperatures, while in Spain it was said that it was impossible to quantify something like that, that “who knows that a person over 80 years of age has actually died…”. Just two years later, an investigation published in ‘Clinical Medicine’ revealed that the deaths in our country had ranged between 5,400 and 6,600…

That work pointed out that hospitals and geriatric centers then lacked the necessary means to deal with a burst of high temperatures. It is now known that the problem was much greater. It was not simply a lack of infrastructure, that too. Climate change had begun to claim human lives, as a result of extreme heat. The action of the human being –it was finally clear, white on black– could also be the cause of diseases, plagues and death.

The coronavirus pandemic has been the latest example of how people’s lives favor the rapid spread of a disease. 50 years ago, perhaps the virus that caused the latest global health crisis would have remained in the Wuhan region of China, and would have been no more than an anecdote in the pages of Internacional or Sociedad in Spanish newspapers. Travel and international trade have changed everything. Now, in a couple of months, the world’s population has to lock themselves in their homes. The most vulnerable on the planet, the elderly and the chronically ill, risk their lives.

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Climate change in an aging world – fundamentally in Western countries – has become not only an environmental challenge, but also an economic, social and health one. It is the most graphic example of how the action of man can influence the impact of diseases.

Air quality

Air pollution alone causes the death of 7.5 million people each year, according to data released by the World Health Organization, which commemorated Health Day on the 6th, under the slogan ‘Our planet, our health ‘. To a greater or lesser degree, a hundred diseases are linked, according to the international institution based in Geneva, with this challenge. The list is long: asthma, chronic obstructive disease (COPD), strokes and strokes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s…

The looming health crisis is of such magnitude that the Spanish Epidemiology Association (SEE) has decided that its next national congress, to be held in San Sebastián next August, will revolve around this issue. Under the slogan ‘Challenges of the 21st century: environment, climate change and social inequalities’, the specialists will analyze the increased mortality and disease that has already begun to be registered in Spain as a result of extreme temperatures, not just high temperatures, with maximums every bigger and more frequent, but also casualties.

Heat waves

“Spain is suffering more and more frequent and intense heat waves,” explains the secretary of the forum in the Gipuzkoan capital, Aitana Lertxundi. “They affect the most vulnerable population groups to a greater extent, such as those over 65 years of age, children, pregnant women, chronic patients, exposed workers and people at risk of exclusion.”

In Europe, the critical points for the action of change are located, as detailed, in the south and southeast of the continent, where there is a “sharp increase in maximum temperatures and a decrease in rainfall.” As a consequence of this phenomenon, the annual number of days with high concentrations of pollutants in urban environments is increasing. The European Environment Agency, recalls the expert, attributes 90,325 deaths to climate change in the period 1980-2017, of which it is estimated that 77,637 are due exclusively to heat waves.

The situation worsens year after year. In 2019 alone, Lertxundi points out, Europe registered 307,000 premature deaths attributable to small suspended particles of dust, soot and metals (PM2.5). Another 404,000 Europeans died from inhaling nitrogen dioxide (NO2, a dangerous pollutant generated by cars and factories) and 16,800 more from ozone.

“The impact has decreased in recent years, but it is still high. If it is added to that caused by temperatures, the result is a scenario that requires intervention now, ”summarizes the epidemiologist.

From the next national congress of epidemiologists, a manifesto will emerge in which the governments of Spain, including the municipal ones, will be asked to invest more in defense of the environment; and, specifically, a reserve of the income of the municipalities for urban planning for improvement plans and adaptation to climate change. Now you know: this is a matter of life, illness or death.


  • POLLUTION: Focus of diseases.
    The WHO warns that exposure to air pollution favors heart disease, stroke, asthma, COPD and cancers of the trachea, bronchi and lung, Alzheimer’s…

  • SPAIN: Health, a priority.
    The National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change 2021-2030 considers human health as one of its eighteen priority areas of work. The document includes a specific line of action to tackle extreme temperatures and recognizes an increase in illnesses and deaths from this phenomenon

  • MUNICIPALITIES: More green areas.
    The national plan against climate change proposes urban planning with solutions based on nature. It contains five major lines of work. To the identification of risks and development of measures for the protection of health, the fight against infectious and parasitic diseases favored by climate change is added. It is also committed to promoting actions against extreme temperatures, caring for air quality and reducing risks in the workplace.

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