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Too hot to handle: can our bodies withstand global heating?

Extreme heat can kill or cause long-term health problems – but for many unendurable temperatures are the new normal


The impact of extreme heat on the human body is not unlike what happens when a car overheats. Failure starts in one or two systems, and eventually it takes over the whole engine until the car stops.

That’s according to Mike McGeehin, environmental health epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When the body can no longer cool itself it immediately impacts the circulatory system. The heart, the kidneys, and the body become more and more heated and eventually our cognitive abilities begin to desert us – and that’s when people begin fainting, eventually going into a coma and dying.”

Between 1998 and 2017, more than 166,000 people died due to heat, according to the World Health Organization, and countries around the world are experiencing a year on year rise in record-breaking high temperatures. For many people, unendurable heat is becoming the new normal. It is most likely to disproportionately affect the poor, the sick – those with chronic conditions, or heart and kidney disease in particular – and older people.

Each organ responds differently to extreme heat exposure, with symptoms that quickly become fatal or cause lingering damage from which the body may never fully recover.

“Every human being is at risk from extreme heat – it’s a fact of life, your body needs to function in a certain environment,” says McGeehin. “And when that environment becomes extreme then you are at risk.”


In 2013, researchers at University hospital Zurich found an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease flare-ups during heatwaves, in what they described as the first study to link the climate crisis to bowel disease.

Extreme heat can also cause “leaky gut”, in which toxins and pathogenic bacteria to seep in to the blood, increasing the likelihood of infections, says Walter. It is almost possible to develop a kind of sepsis infection by being hot, he says. “Gut permeability seems to be a big, big problem.”


Read full article here.

Posted on: October 21 2021

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