Heatstroke Deaths Quadruple as Japan Shuns Air Conditioners

Japan's Heat Wave
Men use fans in Tokyo. Temperatures in eastern Japan, including Tokyo, were 3.8 degrees higher than the 30-year average in the last 10 days of June, according to Hajime Takayama, a forecaster at Japan's weather agency. Photographer: Junko Kimura/Bloomberg

Deaths from heatstroke in Japan quadrupled in the early part of summer as temperatures rose and air conditioners were switched off in line with government appeals to curb electricity usage to avoid power blackouts.

From June 1 to July 10, the latest period available, 26 people died from heatstroke, compared with six in the same period last year, according to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. The number of people taken by ambulance to hospitals for heatstroke more than tripled to 12,973, with 48 percent in the most-at-risk group aged 65 years or older.

“There’s a risk the number of patients will continue to rise if people stop using air conditioners at home,” said Yasufumi Miyake, associate professor at Showa University Hospital, who led a nationwide study of heatstroke. “Elderly people are the most vulnerable as they try to tough it out.”

Temperatures in eastern Japan, including Tokyo, were 3.8 degrees higher than the 30-year average in the last 10 days of June or the highest since at least 1961, according to Hajime Takayama, a forecaster at Japan’s Meteorological Agency. The average temperature in Tokyo in the 10 days was 26.4 degrees Celsius, and temperatures in coming weeks are forecast to be above average, he said.

‘Requires Sensitivity’

Japan has shut 35 of its 54 atomic reactors for safety checks after the March 11 earthquake triggered the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, reducing total power capacity by 11 percent. Conservation efforts amid hotter temperatures are raising concern of a repeat of last year, when a record 1,718 people died of heatstroke as the summer heat broke records.

In the northern prefecture of Yamagata, the government asked businesses and families to either switch off air conditioners or raise the temperature settings for two hours between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on July 7 to conserve power. The government also warned of the risks of heatstroke.

Families were encouraged to stay in one room to cut the number of air conditioners being used and to close their curtains to block sunlight, according to the government website. Consumption on that day dropped 19 percent from a year earlier, exceeding the target of 15 percent, the government said.

“Power-saving also requires sensitivity to heatstroke risk,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan said July 8 in parliament.

Monitor Temperatures

Workers at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant crippled by the March quake and tsunami are facing heatstroke risk from working in high temperatures in sealed suits that protect them from leaking radiation.

Tokyo Electric, or Tepco, has about 1,300 workers at the plant. Since March, 27 workers required medical attention for heatstroke or dehydration, said Ryoko Sakai, a spokeswoman.

The company has procured an additional 660 coolant vests worn under the sealed suits to prevent heatstroke, said Hajime Motojuku, a spokesman.

Heatstroke is an escalation of heat cramps and heat exhaustion and becomes life-threatening when body temperature reaches 40 degrees or higher, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. It can lead to brain damage, organ failure and death.

The health ministry has printed leaflets advising people to use fans and air conditioners, drink water and monitor their body temperatures.

‘Lived Alone’

Supervisors at construction sites and factories should raise heatstroke awareness and have workers drink water and take salt even if they show no symptoms, the ministry said on May 31. Farmers should work shorter work hours, the agriculture ministry said.

Social workers will visit the homes of elderly people to advise them on heatstroke, the Tokyo government said in June. Officials in the Bunkyo ward of Tokyo said it will send out leaflets explaining measures to prevent heatstroke to those over 75 years old who live alone.

The record deaths from heatstroke last year came amid the hottest summer in Japan in 113 years, or since records began in 1898, as temperatures peaked at 39.9 degrees Celsius (103.8 Fahrenheit) on Sept. 5 in Kyoto. About 80 percent of those who died were aged 65 years and older, and almost half were found in their homes, according to Japan’s health ministry.

“People who developed severe cases and died were generally elderly people, who lived alone who were found too late to treat,” said Miyake, who led nationwide studies on heatstroke in 2006, 2008 and 2010. “They are less sensitive and more prone to bear the heat, so they don’t turn on air conditioners.”

Drink Sales Increase

Otsuka Holdings Co., maker of the sports drink “Pocari Sweat,” says sales of the drink rose 25 percent in April from last year to 2.63 million cases, and rose 12 percent in May. The drink contains electrolyte minerals, including magnesium and sodium, to replenish fluids lost through perspiration, according to the company’s website.

Otsuka, which has given annual heatstroke seminars for the past 20 years, has had requests to give talks from companies, schools and local governments a month earlier than usual this year, Risa Date, an Otsuka spokeswoman, said by telephone.

“We feel people are becoming more conscious about the need for rehydration, driven by energy conservation efforts,” Date said. “The production lines for Pocari Sweat are in full operation 24 hours a day.”

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