National

Masks might increase risk of heat-related illnesses this summer, Japanese experts warn

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff writer

As Japan prepares for another sizzling summer, health experts are advising people to take extra precautions against heat-related illnesses amid growing fears that masks worn to ward off the coronavirus might increase cases of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Such concerns have led to initiatives aimed at reducing the risk of heat exhaustion from mask-linked breathing difficulties this summer. A knitwear manufacturer in Yamagata Prefecture has created reusable cloth masks that are cooled and sold in vending machines. They are proving a hit with residents.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is urging the public to adopt a new lifestyle even after national pandemic restrictions are lifted and is advising that people keep wearing masks for protection.

To reduce the number of heat wave victims this summer, the Japan Weather Association has launched the Heatstroke Zero project, in which experts warn of potential health problems and offer advice on how to prevent them. Unlike many western countries, Japanese officials do not differentiate between heat stroke and heat exhaustion, and usually lump both conditions together under one deadly term.

Experts advise adjusting one’s daily routine to allow for moderate exercise on a daily basis, drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, eating properly, getting plenty of sleep and wearing loose-fitting clothing to improve air circulation.

On its website, the association explains the symptoms of and strategies for preventing heat-related illnesses.

In the meantime, the Health, Labor and Welfare ministry has launched a campaign urging employers to ensure safe working conditions during the hot and humid summer. According to the ministry, 790 people who developed heat-related illnesses while working last year had to take at least four days of medical leave to recover. Of that total, 26 people died.

Records of heat-related deaths show that workers who use personal protective equipment are at higher risk because the gear traps air close to the body, increasing one’s heat stress.

The Meteorological Agency predicts that average temperatures through August will either hover around norms or be higher than usual, raising concerns of a repeat of 2018, when an unprecedented heat wave killed at least 65 people in a single week. Scorching heat across the country sent 95,137 people to hospitals for suspected heat stroke that year, prompting the agency to declare the phenomenon a natural disaster. Altogether, the 2018 heat wave killed 160 people between May and September, according to data from the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

The agency’s data also show that within the same period last year, as many as 71,317 people were rushed to hospitals for suspected heat-related illnesses.

Earlier this month, the Japan Academic Network for Disaster Reduction warned that a heat wave can reduce one’s immune response to the coronavirus, heightening the risk of complications from COVID-19.

“Try to stay fit and make sure as soon as possible that you have proper ventilation or fans to maintain air circulation so you don’t get affected by the heat,” Masako Yoneda, the group’s director, said in a video message.

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