“Heat as a cause of death is usually not even considered”
Thousands of deaths could cost rising temperatures every year in the future, warn RKI and Health Minister Karl Lauterbach. In fact, there are on average just 19 heat deaths a year. An environmental doctor explains why that is.
SSunburn, heat stroke and other health problems: The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) assume that thousands of people die every year as a result of extreme heat. The problem is likely to worsen as global warming increases.
But when it comes to heat as the direct cause of death, the official figures are significantly lower, according to a statement from the Federal Statistical Office on Wednesday. For a scientist, this is a basic problem in recording.
For the years 2001 to 2021, the statisticians see an average of almost 1,500 hospital treatments due to extreme heat and sun per year. “However, with an average of 19 cases per year, heat is rarely the direct cause of death,” writes the Federal Office. In many cases, however, the combination of heat and previous illnesses increases mortality. “In weeks characterized by periods of heat, the number of deaths has also increased in recent summers,” says a statement.
“That shows the basic problem we have,” said environmental doctor Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann from the University of Augsburg. The 19 cases per year mentioned by the statistical office are very likely people who would have worked outside, were in good health and died of heat stroke.
“The basic problem for me is that heat is usually not even considered as the cause of death, because there is a person with a heart attack lying on the resuscitation table, dying and then simply dying of the heart attack.” But at the same time it has been 35 degrees outside for days were not recorded anywhere.
“Excess mortality is the better method”
It will not give the wrong cause of death. “In the body, this is actually the heart attack,” said Traidl-Hoffmann. The question is, however, what caused this or triggered it, and here the heat most likely played a large part.
“Even in our emergency room, we have had people who worked outside in the sun all day and then came to us with a core temperature of 43 degrees,” said the scientist about the clearer cases of heat deaths. In the end, one patient died of a coagulation disorder.
“Excess mortality is the better way to register really heat-related, heat-related illnesses and deaths.” It’s like an equation with several variables. “The variable heat and environmental factors in general are something in this equation that is not yet thought of in the minds of many medical professionals, but plays a large part.”
According to the statisticians, there was an above-average number of heat-related treatments in hospitals and deaths in Germany in the years with many hot days above 30 degrees.
During consultations with representatives from the care industry, doctors, municipalities and other experts on a national heat protection plan, Lauterbach recently spoke of thousands of deaths from heat every year. According to an information portal that has now gone online, nine of the ten warmest years between 1881 and 2022 have taken place in Germany since the year 2000. The RKI also estimates the number of heat-related deaths at thousands a year, more than 8,000 in 2018 alone.
Traidl-Hoffmann sees the information portal as a good first step. But: “In any case, more has to come.” A national heat protection plan must warn people early on. “We have to build our cities in such a way that we can still make heat protection plans at all.” Germany has already exceeded the target of a maximum warming of 1.5 degrees set in the Paris Agreement. “Our cities become disease traps during periods of heat.” And there will also have to be changes in the world of work. “A siesta is something we probably need to introduce, we need more flexible working hours.”
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