Understanding the physiology behind heat and cold-related illnesses can help us alleviate the affects of adverse weather on human health.
Heat and human health
A Met Office workshop on thermophysiology
Monday 4 April 2011 - Wednesday 6 April 2011, Exeter, United Kingdom
Modelling the physiological mechanisms involved in heat and cold-related illnesses would provide a greatly improved understanding of the risk of adverse weather on human health. The University of Exeter and the UK Met Office propose to work with each other and with other leading organisations to research the effect of temperature related environmental parameters (heat and cold) on human physiology. The aim of this workshop will be to define a robust model of thermo-physiology that can be employed in further research.
We know that heat and cold kill, and that epidemiological studies provide some answers to the questions of how this happens and why. However, epidemiology alone does not go far enough. Together, we would like to engage with experts in the fields of temperature related effects upon the human metabolism, and in particular the cardiovascular and respiratory functions. Specifically, the field of interest is the physiological response of the human metabolism to environmental conditions (e.g. changes to blood flow due to temperature) and the mathematical and computational modelling of the human physiology responding to its environment.
This expertise will help formulate the research questions to be addressed – and in turn these questions will provide direction to the research effort in this field. By combining this knowledge with the expertise in weather, risk analysis, forecasting and health impacts of climate change that exist at the Met Office, it is hoped that a thermo-physiological model can then be used in the design of patient interventions, care models, services to vulnerable populations and building design and management. The potential deliverables from such research include tools enabling the clinician to assess the physiological risk to patients from given environmental conditions.
Simulating the physiology that links environmental conditions and ill-health would provide a direct method of assessing the health impact of weather, and therefore provide the means for health hazard forecast services. While statistical analyses using epidemiological techniques provide an assessment of the impact of different environmental conditions on human health, simulating the physiology using numerical methods has key advantages: it provides a measure of risk that can be readily explained by physiological processes, and it is an assessment of exposure to hazardous environmental conditions against which mitigating actions can also be assessed using the same methods. An example of a mitigating action could be sheltering, that is a change in exposure from a windy and wet to a still and dry environment – in both situations heat-loss can be evaluated.
Concerning Heat and Human Physiology, the Met Office has primarily three areas of interest: (1) the direct hazard of extreme heat and cold, (2) the risk to the cardiovascular system, and (3) the risk to the respiratory system. For example, vasoconstriction of the capillaries due to cold may increase the cardiac pulse pressure – this extra strain on the heart will put patients suffering from a heart condition at risk.
The bringing together of experts in the field of Human Physiology as it relates to the environment will encourage new international research collaboration. In particular, the workshop will include numerical/computational modellers with experience in simulating aspects of Human Physiology. The workshop will help develop multidisciplinary research between researchers in Human Physiology and physiology modellers.
Participants of the workshop will identify the physiological mechanisms that link environmental conditions to known health hazards including:
- physiological mechanisms that require little further research and that can be simulated with existing methods,
- physiological mechanisms that require little further research but which simulation methods would require development, and
- physiological mechanisms that are poorly understood and require significant further research.
A report will be produced, including sections contributed by the participants of each of the parallel sessions, containing:
- A review of the current state of knowledge in the field of Heat and Human Physiology, as set out by the presentations of the keynote speakers. This section will highlight the physiological mechanisms which, in the expert opinion of the speakers, belong to one of the three categories defined in the objectives.
- Separate sections for each of the parallel breakout sessions detailing for the breakout topic the research required to simulate the physiological mechanisms that link environmental conditions to health impacts.
- A section that brings together the previous sections on each topic, and details the research required to simulate physiological mechanisms that concern several of the breakout topics.
- Recommendations as to what physiological research and simulation developments should be prioritised, and where necessary the dependencies between these tasks.
- Suggested collaborative research proposals with lists of the researchers and institutions that agree in principle to participate in each collaboration.
The Met Office will use the report to participate in the suggested collaborative research and further develop its capacity to simulate the impact of weather on health through modelling computationally the relevant physiological mechanisms. A budget has been set aside to contribute to follow-up actions from this workshop.
The preliminary agenda for the workshop is available here.
Speakers and participants
A full list of speakers and participants is available here.
Participants are able to login to the workshop's collaborative online wiki here.