TWO major issues concern me: climate change and the coronavirus Covid-19. Millions of people around the world are exposed to the virus and dangerous levels of heat stress – a dangerous condition that can cause organs to shut down. Many live in developing countries and do jobs that expose them to potentially life-threatening conditions. These include being out in the open on farms and building sites or indoors in factories and hospitals.
Science editor David Shukman shares the worries with me and many others. Summers are becoming hotter and hotter for humans. Global warming will increase the chances of summer conditions that may be "too hot for humans" to work in.
When we caught up with Dr. Jimmy Lee, his goggles were steamed up and there was sweat trickling off his neck. An emergency medic, he's laboring in the stifling heat of tropical Singapore to care for patients with Covid-19. There's no air conditioning – a deliberate choice, to prevent the virus from being blown around – and he notices that he and his colleagues become "more irritable, shorter with each other".
Predictions shake me: more than 3bn could live in extreme heat by 2070. The monetary Siberian heatwave is clear evidence of climate change. 2019 was Europe's warmest year on record. And Dr. Lee's personal protective equipment, essential for avoiding infection, makes things worse by creating a sweltering 'micro-climate' under the multiple layers of plastic.
We can all imagine that working in a tropical climate can be extremely uncomfortable. One danger is that overheating can slow down our ability to do something vital for medical staff – make quick decisions.
Another is that they may ignore the warning signs of what's called heat stress – such as faintness and nausea – and keep on working till they collapse. If the body is unable to cool down properly so its core temperature keeps rising to dangerous levels and key organs can shut down. It happens when the main technique for getting rid of excess heat – the evaporation of sweat on the skin – can't take place because the air is too humid.
According to Dr. Rebecca Lucas, who researches physiology at the University of Birmingham, the symptoms can escalate from fainting and disorientation to cramps and failure of the guts and kidneys.
What impact will climate change have? As global temperatures rise, more intense humidity is likely as well which means more people will be exposed to more days with that hazardous combination of heat and moisture.
Another study, published earlier this year, warned that heat stress could affect as many as 1.2 bn people around the world by 2100, four times more than now. It's not a new thing for me and you: people need to drink plenty of fluid before they start work, take regular breaks, and then drink again when they rest.
But scientists around the globe agree: avoiding heat stress is easier said than done. There's a practical problem as well – some people do not want to drink so they can avoid having to go to the toilet. And another fatal attraction in my opinion: For many people, there's a professional desire to keep working whatever the difficulties so as not to let colleagues and patients down at a time of crisis.
Highly motivated people can actually be at the greatest risk of heat injury, says Dr. Jason Lee, an associate professor in physiology at the National University of Singapore. He's a leading member of a group specializing in the dangers of excessive heat, the Global Heat Health Information Network, which has drawn up guidelines to help medics cope with Covid-19. It's spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the US weather and climate agency Noaa.
This climate change will be a bigger monster and we really need a coordinated effort across nations to prepare for what is to come.
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