Sunday, August 17, 2003

The almost always superb James Taranto wrote a doubting piece about the 3000 dead from the heat in France.

Does anyone else find this claim suspicious? "France's worst heat wave on record has killed an estimated 3,000 people across the nation, the Health Ministry said Thursday, as the government faced accusations that it failed to respond to a major health crisis," the Associated Press reports from Paris.

Three thousand deaths? In a Western European country? Because of the weather? This is the kind of death toll usually reserved for Third World natural disasters--Chinese earthquakes, Bangladeshi floods and the like. Has the heat really killed 3,000 Frenchmen?

As it turns out, the AP dispatch gives ample reason to regard the French claim as fishy. For one thing, the Health Ministry says the 3,000 figure includes deaths "linked directly or indirectly" to the heat. Who knows how tenuous the link would have to be to say a death was "indirectly" linked to the heat? And it turns out the claim rests at least in part on a correlation without any proof of cause and effect:

In a statement, the ministry said its estimate was partly drawn from studying deaths in 23 Paris regional hospitals from July 25-Aug. 12 and from information provided by General Funeral Services.

According to 2002 figures, the Paris regional hospitals that were surveyed could have expected some 39 deaths a day, the ministry said. But Tuesday, they recorded nearly 180, it said.

"We note a clear increase in cases beginning Aug. 7-8, which we can regard as the start of the epidemic of deaths linked to the heat," the statement said.

Morgues and funeral directors have reported skyrocketing demand for their services since the heat wave took hold. General Funeral Services, France's largest undertaker, said it handled some 3,230 deaths from Aug. 6-12, compared to 2,300 on an average week in the year--a 37 percent jump.

Might it be noteworthy that the French are claiming almost the same number of deaths from the heat as America suffered on Sept. 11? A popular lunatic conspiracy theory on the "European street" has it that George W. Bush is to blame every time the weather is bad. (This cartoon from Le Monde hints at the idea.) Don't be surprised if the America-haters' next talking point is that by renouncing the Kyoto Protocols Bush killed as many people as Osama bin Laden did.

Jim, Jim, Jim. Not even the French ALWAYS lie.

Their stats are almost certainly true, if you look at the figures for excess deaths in Barcelona. Let's just say, since the heat wave lasted (it's finally broken!) more than fifty days, that only on the last twenty days did people with asthma and other respiratory diseases and just generally old or sick or weak people die in large numbers due to the heat. Well, Barcelona was averaging about fifty deaths a day more than normal during the end of the heat wave. Fifty times twenty is two thousand. Take just one-quarter of that figure, to be conservative, and you've got five hundred extra dead people in Barcelona alone this summer.

So what's different about this August and any other August that would account for the excess number of deaths? No epidemics. No weird mutant flu viruses. Nothing medical especially strange. But, well, it's been incredibly hot for a long time with no relief this August. That is not true of a normal August. That seems to me to be the difference.

Such huge death tolls are not unusual in the United States during extreme heat waves. Says my 2002 World Almanac:

June-Sept. 1980, E and Central US heatwave. Approx. 10,000 dead.
Summer 1988, E and Central US heatwave. Approx. 5000-10,000 dead.
July 12-17 1995, MW and NE US heatwave. Approx. 800 dead, incl. 560 in Chicago alone.
Summer 1998, S US heatwave. Approx. 200 dead.
Summer 1999, continental US heatwave, 502 dead.
Summer 2000, US heatwave, 140 dead.

Looks to me like in a big heatwave in the US as many as 10,000 people have died, and I remember that 1980 one. We were living in Dallas and the temperature hit 100 every day for more than a month. So it seems to me that the 3000-deaths number the French have come out with is by no means out of line.

Sorry, Mr. Taranto. You blew this one.

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