The climate crisis and heat stress: effects on health and work capacity
Global heating is leading to extreme temperatures becoming more common in some Earth regions. As well as being associated with water scarcity, droughts and failed harvests, these temperatures also have direct negative consequences for human health. A research team from the Charité in Berlin is investigating the effects of climate change on African farmers.
Humans need to maintain a constant body temperature of around 37 degrees Celsius to stay healthy and active.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, heat stress attributable to climate change already represents an alarming health hazard for the local population. The human body can combat overheating to a limited extent, for example by increasing the rate of sweat production. But these reactions can cause considerable stress to the human organism—especially during intense physical work such as the outdoor work carried out by farmers. Heat stress can be subjectively experienced as unpleasant, but it is also dangerous: ongoing heat stress can lead to exhaustion, heatstroke and even death
Image: Martina Maggioni
Within the scope of a project (“Climate change, heat stress and their impact on health and work capacity”) funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and directed by Professor Hanns-Christian Gunga at the Charité, researchers are studying the heat stress experienced by farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. They are studying the effects of progressive global heating on the productivity of farmers to derive recommendations for countermeasures. Long phases of hot weather are a particular threat to health because recovery phases are absent when the human body also struggles with thermoregulation at night. When no technical solutions can be found, such as air conditioning for indoor work, farmers are forced to shift tasks to cooler periods of the day or night or to reduce their pace of work with an attendant reduction in their productivity. As most of the daily workload in Sub-Saharan Africa arises during manual subsistence farming, any drop in productivity due to climate change can be expected to induce additional grave economic, social and health problems.