Pollution Cited as Factor in French Heat Deaths
Author: Kerstin Gehmlich
"Several hundreds or thousands could have been affected. Maybe between 1,000 and 3,000," said Jean-Felix Bernard, president of France's Conseil National de l'Air, an air quality agency attached to the Environment Ministry.
Hit by the hottest weather in some 60 years, France recorded around 11,400 more deaths than usual in the first two weeks of August. Pensioners have been the worst affected, with many struck down by hyperthermia and dehydration as temperatures rose over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
A recent study suggests that pollution may also have been a key cause of death, as searing temperatures and a lack of wind left a cloud of smog hanging over Paris.
Bernard said he based his estimate of pollution-related deaths on a 2002 study by the INVS, a health watchdog within the health ministry. It showed people exposed to polluted air over a period of several days had a much higher mortality risk.
The European Union has also recognized high ozone levels as a health concern in a study published before the heatwave.
"Nearly 1,000 hospital admissions and more than 2,000 premature deaths per year can be attributed to this pollution (high ozone levels) in the EU countries," the European Environment Agency said in a report published in May.
While ozone in the upper atmosphere is vital for filtering out harmful ultraviolet light, ground-level ozone - caused by sunlight reacting with certain forms of pollution, especially car exhaust emissions - can cause respiratory problems.
As temperatures rocketed in France this summer, the French also suffered from record levels of air pollution.
"It's the first year since this form of data collection began in 1991 that we've seen such high ozone values over such a long period," said Joelle Colosio of environmental agency ADEME.
"It has been very hot, with temperatures not even falling significantly during the night, and there has not been a lot of wind, which normally dilutes pollution," she said.
POLLUTION IN SPAIN
In Spain, where the official heatwave death toll is 101, a group of ecologists wants the government to investigate how many heatwave victims were killed by ozone and other air pollutants.
"This could be one of the keys to the increase in deaths noted this summer in our country and our neighbors (France and Portugal)," Ecologists in Action said in a statement.
A spokeswoman at Spain's health ministry said an investigation into the heatwave - which could be published as early as Friday - would examine all possible causes of death.
The ecologist group said European guidelines state that short-term exposure to ozone levels above 240 micrograms per cubic meter poses a risk to human health.
Levels in Spain spiralled as high as the 288 micrograms recorded in Tarragona on August 5, the group said, adding that in 2003, Spanish ozone levels climbed over the EU's public notification threshold four times as often as during 2002.
In France, the critical EU level was exceeded in many rural areas and cities for several days in August, the ADEME said.
French environmentalists said car use should be reduced and air pollution caused by industry better regulated.
"Having one "car-free" day per year will not be enough," said Yannick Vicaire from Greenpeace. "We will have to seriously consider closing some urban centers to all traffic."
(Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison)