Heatwaves and Pollution: The Need to Adapt
The current heatwave could become the new normal for UK summers by 2040 because of climate change.
A new report has led the Environmental Audit Committee to warn that 7000 heat related deaths a year could be the price to pay for this - and this doesn’t include additional deaths from the combined effects of air pollution. The population and our buildings must adapt and our emissions must reduce.
As temperatures soar in the south and east of the country this week towards the record high of 38.5C, the report from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine paints a stark picture. It points to a dramatic rise in risk of death from cardiac, kidney and respiratory disease, with a call to protect the most vulnerable, especially given the ageing population in the UK.
While scientists cannot be categorical that the far wider distribution of heatwaves this year is due to an acceleration of climate change, they all agree that future heatwaves will be hotter and more frequent thanks to carbon emissions.
The Met Office has also warned that UK summer temperatures could regularly reach 38.5C by the 2040s. So, what does this mean for the future health of the nation and how do we adapt?
Properties that risk health
During the 2003 heatwave, excess deaths in nursing homes in parts of the UK rose by 42%. In France, the guilt of the death of nearly 15,000 elderly residents left in their homes during the summer holidays, led to a national debate over improved protection for the most vulnerable.
It is clear that property in the more northerly temperate climate regions is ill suited to this extreme heat. We are also one of the most urbanised populations in the world. The World Bank reported that in 2016, 83% of us lived in urban areas.
In a densely populated city, temperatures can be up to 10C hotter than the surrounding countryside because hard surfaces absorb heat during the day and give out heat at night. This is called the heat island effect.
Our property stock varies in its ability to cope with heat – older stone cottages fare better, but homes built in the 1960s and 1970s present a particular risk, as can flats with windows that are small, hard to open or face the same way.
The updated National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was also published this week. There are welcome additions about air quality and impact on the environment. However, on design, there are sure to be further amendments needed so that new builds shield and insulate from heat, perhaps with shutters and thicker walls, as well as using water more efficiently.
Pollution and Heat – the Deadly Cocktail
Currently, the country is just one stage away from a national emergency being declared with this heatwave. Air quality warnings have been issued again for London, due to a mix of toxic air, extreme temperature, emissions from the continent and a lack of cloud.
The last recorded high pollution in London was on 7 May. It is the ninth time an air quality alert has been issued since Mr Khan became mayor.
Earlier this year, Annual legal air pollution limits had been reached in London within one month. Hourly limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have been exceeded 18 times so far this year - the maximum allowed under European Union rules.
The World Health Organisation lists the UK as having a frightening 94.6% of its population exposed to PM2.5 air pollution that exceeds WHO guidelines.
With our current rate of population growth, emissions and the increasing heatwave trend, this is sure to get worse.
Air quality decreases during times of hot temperatures because the heat and sunlight essentially cook the air along with all the chemical compounds lingering within it. This chemical soup combines with the nitrogen oxide emissions present in the air, creating a smog of ground-level ozone gas.
This makes breathing difficult for those who already have respiratory ailments or heart problems and can also make healthy people more susceptible to respiratory infections.
The Hazy, Wheezy Days of Summer
So, we could see this kind of heatwave as a regular summer fixture, especially in the more populated south and east of the country. Unless a strong grip is taken on emissions, as well as building adaption to climate change, some parts of the urban south could become summer “no go” zones by 2050.
It is important therefore that property decisions are not taken in the short term. Key considerations have to be linked to individuals’ health and where they live – will increasing air pollution make them more susceptible than others? Could apparently healthy children and adults develop more respiratory problems if they choose to live in a high pollution risk urban area?
Will the house they choose to live in become impossible to live in without prohibitively expensive adaptation to ever higher summer temperatures?
Future Climate Info is the only environmental reports provider that offers air quality data as standard as part of property transaction due diligence. Our unique partnership with Earthsense means your clients understand the pollution risks they could be exposed at a greater level into the future.
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