We’re all feeling the heat, but what about the wider impact?

Effects of the heatwave UK

There’s a huge amount of media coverage every time the UK experiences a heatwave, and this year’s record temperatures have taken that attention to new levels.

Temperatures in 2019 peaked at 38.1oC; in 2022 they topped 40oC in numerous locations. Even without an understanding of the impact of global warming, the rise is startling.

We are already all too familiar with the outcomes and complications that overheating can cause. The elderly and the young are most vulnerable, while the rest of us sit in front of fans, air-conditioned offices and shops or venture outside covered in sunscreen and constantly hydrating.

However, the wider implications and after-effects of excess heat that do not tend to get nearly as much coverage are the impact on air pollution, our infrastructure and the economy. 

There are cost implications involved across the emergency services, our firefighters, our nurses and doctors, our wildlife rescue centres and the construction sector, repairing leaks, mechanical breakdowns, road service repairs and so on.

As the ambient heat rises, air quality degrades.

The air becomes stagnant in high temperatures, and the drier, hotter weather causes droughts and causes pollutants to rise.

This builds up an increase in particle matter (pm) as the air traps gases and pollens from dried-out crops, plants, and grasses, meaning asthma and hay fever sufferers suffer more.

There is also increased pollution from our summer BBQs, while wildfires are a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. For the pollutants to settle, we need rain to wash the air-borne particle matter away.

According to Friends of the Earth, there were almost 900 extra deaths linked to higher temperatures from the 2019 heatwave in England, and they predict that heart-related deaths could become the summer norm, with 7,000 people a year set to lose their lives by 2050.

How to control indoor air quality and movement.

It is essential to have good quality indoor air for our health and for our comfort and we can influence this to a certain extent.

  • In the home, cooking emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Opening a window will help dissipate compounds, as will turning on an extractor fan and making sure filters are washed or replaced regularly. You can also position an air purifier under an open window, so dirty air coming inside the home is not dragged across a room; instead, it is filtered and the air will be cleaner. Regular vacuuming inside our homes and cars can also help by removing settled particles. A fan moving the air will help to keep us cool, and even household plants can play a part in improving our indoor air quality.
  • In the workplace, there is no legal maximum temperature in the UK, although the TUC is putting together a case for a legally enforceable maximum temperature. Businesses, however, must help their employees stay as comfortable as possible in the workplace by providing correct maintenance of air conditioning and ventilation systems and ensuring regular breaks are given to staff working in hot conditions to rehydrate. Where there is a possibility of heat stress occurring, you will need to consider this when carrying out a risk assessment. There are also other regulations which employers must comply with, such as providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suitable for the weather conditions.

Many of us spend the long, dark winter months dreaming of better weather and enjoying the sunshine. But it’s clear that the extremes we’ve experienced in recent years bring with them challenges for which we are often ill-prepared.

FURTHER READING: Just how bad is indoor air quality?
Effects of the heatwave UK
After effects of excess heat on our air pollution, our infrastructure, and the economy?

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