Workers, seniors face health risks amid extreme heat wave in Europe

Temperatures in the French capital soared to 93 degrees — and felt more like 102 degrees — as the heat intensifies across the continent.
Image: Chaima Boutouil, 25, sells drinks and ice cream in view of the Eiffel Tower amid a heat wave in Paris.
Chaima Boutouil, 25, sells drinks and ice cream in view of the Eiffel Tower amid a heat wave in Paris.Linda Givetash / NBC News

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By Linda Givetash

PARIS — In clear view of the Eiffel Tower, Chaima Boutouil and her colleagues have no way of keeping cool while hovering over hot plates making crepes in the midst of a heat wave spreading across Europe on Thursday.

“In the morning, I drank six or seven bottles of water,” Boutouil, 25, told NBC News while working at the food and drink kiosk in the French capital.

Just before a line of customers formed, Boutouil handed the hot plates over to Farid Ouakli in order to get a break from the extreme heat by managing the freezers and ice cream machines instead.

“We work together,” she said, as they switched places again.

Farid Ouakli hovers over a sizzling hot plate making crepes during the heat wave hitting Paris.Linda Givetash / NBC News

Temperatures in Paris reached 93 degrees — and felt more like 102 degrees — as the heat intensified across Europe. Spain's meteorological organization reported a high for Thursday just shy of 104 degrees in the town of La Almunia de Doña Godina, about 160 miles east of the capital Madrid.

The conditions brought on by hot air moving north from the Sahara have increased the risk for wildfires and contributed to the spark of a 12,000-acre blaze southwest of Barcelona on Wednesday.

Friday's forecast offers no reprieve with parts of France anticipating highs of up to 113 degrees.

French officials are on particularly high alert, still remembering the tragic heat wave of 2003 that killed 15,000 people. While the majority of fatalities were among people over the age of 75 who lived alone, experts say there were other factors including poverty and public health education at play.

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That heat wave fell in the month of August, when many in France take vacations and leave critical services understaffed and ill prepared to deal with the emergency, said Richard Keller, professor of medical history and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wrote a book on the 2003 event.

In anticipation of the dangers of the current heat wave, many schools have closed and postponed exams this week while parks have remained open overnight and cooling stations have been established for people seeking reprieve from stifling apartments.

France's Health Ministry is advising people to limit their time in the sun, avoid rigorous physical activity, reduce alcohol intake and check in on their neighbors and loved ones. Volunteers are also checking into people’s homes and a crisis phone line has been set up to support the most vulnerable.

While the efforts show the country is far more prepared to manage the heat, Keller said officials should also look after workers — particularly those outdoors or in hot environments.

Near the popular upmarket department store, Galeries Lafayette, Abdel Hamid pushed a garbage bin full of trash he swept up from the city streets.

“Across the street in the sun, the maximum we can stay is 30 minutes before coming back,” he said.

His shift that began at 6 a.m. local time (midnight ET) was also set to end a half-hour early to help avoid being out during the hottest times of the day, he added.

Construction sites in the area where roads were being repaired were largely unmanned as noon approached. But the hot streets were still bustling.

American Tyler Cote, 29, an information technology professional living in Paris, said he’s recently stayed at the office for nearly 12 hours to enjoy the air conditioning, which most apartments in the city do not have.

His apartment is sweltering to the point that he sleeps with a frozen water bottle to “take the edge off.” Despite the challenges, he added, “I’m definitely not suffering. It’s not the best sleep, that’s all.”

Abdel Hamid tries to stay out of the sun while picking up trash in Paris.Linda Givetash / NBC News

Teenagers Trinquet Agathe and Charly Lueset, meanwhile, said they were headed to enjoy the air conditioning of large department stores.

“I don’t really like the heat. I don’t feel comfortable,” Agathe, 16, said while riding a subway train to the shopping district.

She said she’d likely grab a bottle of water from transit workers who are stationed at many stops across Paris to help riders endure the oven-like underground.

At Gare de Magenta, a busy transit hub, employees of the state train network SNCF handed out paper fans along with the bottles of water as people made their way in and out of the station.

Keller, the professor of medical history, said extreme weather events like this highlight the vulnerability of people and cities and the tangible impacts of climate change.

“It’s one thing to talk about rising sea level, to speak about how that might be affecting populations in the South Pacific. It’s another thing … when this starts coming home to European capital cities,” he said. “People being to realize, gosh, this is serious business and this is affecting us right here at home.”