British deaths rose by 2,000 during August heat wave

Saturday, October 4, 2003

LONDON -- About 2,000 more people than normal died during August's heat wave in England and Wales, the government reported Friday. Experts said the soaring temperatures most likely accelerated deaths that would have happened soon anyway.

The estimates released Friday by the Office for National Statistics do not prove that the extra deaths were caused by the unusually hot weather; they identify a suspicious correlation.

However, previous research has shown that heat waves do result in more deaths in the immediate aftermath.

"There's a very convincing story that in fact the climate did cause excess deaths for a short period," said Dr. David Pencheon of the Institute of Public Health at Cambridge University in England.

Matter of timing

"Climate does influence the exact day of death, but when you even things out, it tends to bring the deaths that are about to happen in the next two or three months all into a few weeks or so."

"There's no evidence that it kills off people who were not going to die in the next, say, two or three months," said Pencheon, who was not connected with the report. "A lot of people at any one time are close to death. You only need a slight change for it to suddenly bunch together."

Clare Griffiths, a senior mortality researcher at the Office for National Statistics, said that after a peak, deaths will dip lower than expected and then return to average. She said it was too soon to see whether that was true following the August heat wave.

A study that examined deaths and temperatures from 1976 to 1996 in London found that deaths started to increase once the temperature reached 66 degrees.

Still, the bunching effect, a well-known phenomenon of epidemiology, is much more pronounced in winter than in summer, experts say.

The government statisticians noted that although deaths in August were higher than average, the peak number on Aug. 11 -- right after the hottest day -- was still lower than typical daily mortality in winter.

Evidence suggests that the change in temperature, rather than the absolute temperature, is more significant. For instance, countries used to the cold, like Sweden, tend to have a lower excess winter mortality than countries like Britain with milder winters, Pencheon said.

Government statisticians expect to analyze the information more deeply to determine in how many cases, the exact day of death can be blamed on the heat wave.

France worst hit

Deaths in other European countries were more than 18,000 higher than the previous August, making it one of the deadliest in a century, according to an AP survey. France was worst hit, with an official toll of 14,802 more deaths in August than would be expected.

The British report said 15,187 people died between Aug. 4 and Aug. 13 in England and Wales, which was 2,045, or 15.6 percent, higher than the average for the previous five years. Figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland were not included.

The Met Office, which tracks British weather, said temperatures were above 86 degrees at several locations for 10 straight days beginning Aug. 3.

The number of deaths peaked at 1,691 on Aug. 11 -- 363 deaths more than the average. That was a day after Britain had its hottest day on record, with temperatures reaching a high of 101.3 degrees in Brogdale in southeastern England.

No comprehensive Europe-wide toll exists, and nations are using different methods to measure heat-related deaths. The AP conducted its survey over two weeks, obtaining information from government and nongovernment sources, including national Health Ministries, government statistics offices, mortuaries and ambulance services.

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