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Heat stress with Dr Claudia Di Napoli

Dr Claudia Di Napoli discusses how climate change can have a negative impact on our health.
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The impacts of climate change on wildlife are well known. But what’s now coming to the forefront is the impacts it is going to be having on human physical and mental health. We can now see this in the summer of 2021 with the heat waves that are rocking through North America. And today, we’re in the Minghella Studios on our lovely campus that’s home to the Film and Theatre department. And we’re talking to Dr. Claudia Di Napoli, who was part of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change report. So Claudia, what interested you about climate change? Why did you get into this field? And can you tell us a bit about your research in the field?
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I got into this field because as a scientist, I really loved the idea that science can make our lives better. We know that climate change is affecting our health already, now. So understand how climate change and human health are linked nowadays is really fundamental, is really pivotal if we want to understand how the future climate will affect our well-being. My research is about putting climate data at the service of human health, of our health. This is important, because the climate data are able to tell us how climate on Earth has been changing in the past 20, 30, 40 years. We know from our own experience, that our well-being is very much connected to the environment around us.
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So if this environment changes, as it is doing, our well-being, our health changes too. Related to your research, can you please explain what the Universal Thermal Climate Index is, and how it’s used? The Universal Thermal Climate Index is a tool that is able to tell us how stressed our body becomes when we are outdoors. So starting from air temperature, humidity, wind, and radiation, the universal thermal climate index is able to tell us about the heat stress, and the cold stress our body suffers when we are outdoors. And as such, it can be used to understand, for example, how conditions causing heat stress in our body have changed over time. How has it changed in the past?
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And how might it be projected to change in the future? Trends in the Universal Thermal Climate Index are going up. That means that we are getting more and more exposed to conditions associated to heat stress. Europe, for example, the number of days with high level of heat stress during the summertime have been increasing in the past 40 years. And at the same time, if instead we look at winters, the number of winter days with cold stress has been decreasing. So seriously, if we look at the data, what we see, this is a trend. We are getting more exposed to heat stress throughout the year.
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While talking about health is obviously, whilst heat is important, there’s also the risk of pollution impacting health. How does pollution impact health? Pollution does harm our health. And it does that in multiple ways. Breathing polluted air increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart diseases, and lung cancer. The most severe impacts unfortunately happen on people who are already ill. So children, the elderly, and poor people are among the most susceptible and most vulnerable. The most health harmful pollutants are fine particles. In fact, these particles have been found to be closely associated with excessive premature mortality. And what does the future hold for your area of expertise? And what can we do about the future?
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There is so much that needs to be done in the field of climate change and health. We need for example, better health data, so that we can understand the linkages between climate change and human well-being in every possible corner in the world, and leave nobody behind. We also need to work more on the linkages themselves. Climate change has made heatwaves more frequent, more intense, and long lasting. We know that heat waves kill people directly by exposing them to too high heat stress. But not all links between climate change and human health are so direct. There are indirect links that we need to account for. Let’s think about crops. We know that global mean temperatures are on the rise.
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Because of this, crops mature too quickly. When they mature too quickly, crop yields are usually lower than average. And this threatens food security. Not only, being too hot also reduces the hours agricultural workers can safely work outdoors. So this also leads to yield losses, and may also reduce product quality. So these, and many other factors are all points we have to consider, we have to connect if we want to guarantee, if we want to safeguard our lives in the coming decades. Definitely. It’s good that we’re becoming more accountable, and you know, people are recognising that the hot summers are not just a hot summer, it’s actually climate change in action.
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And especially with young people getting involved as well, that it is very hopeful for the future that they will carry it forward as well, not just within science, but kind of in the general public. Yes, I do agree with that 100%.

Watch this video to hear Dr Claudia Di Napoli tell Emily and Nick about how our health is connected to our environment and the link between climate change and heat stress. While heat waves kill people directly through exposing people to heat stress, not all the effects of climate change are so direct and Claudia explains some of the less obvious associations. Nick and Emily also ask Claudia about how pollution affects our health and who is most vulnerable.

Claudia mentions the Universal Thermal Climate Index (UTCI) which is a way of representing the thermal (heat and cold) stress of the human body. It’s calculated using an advanced model of human thermoregulation coupled with a clothing insulation model. The model estimates the effect of air temperature, wind speed, water vapour pressure and radiation on the human body. You can see the results on a stress category scale ranging from extreme cold stress to extreme heat stress.

About Dr Claudia Di Napoli

Dr Claudia Di Napoli is a Research Fellow in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at University of Reading. She is interested in heatwaves and weather extremes that pose a threat to human health. Understanding past and future trends of such weather-related health hazards is at the focus of her research.

Claudia is currently one of the key contributors to the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change. You’ll explore the latest report (2020) and the wider impact of climate change on our health in the next step.

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