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How Not To Die In Iceland: Cardiac And Pulmonary Events The Main Cause Of Death In Iceland

How Not To Die In Iceland: Cardiac And Pulmonary Events The Main Cause Of Death In Iceland

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published April 6, 2017

Our readers are aware that the number of tourists to Iceland is growing at an accelerating rate. Yet you might be surprised to learn that while the number of tourists who die in Iceland is likewise increasing, it is not increasing in proportion with the number of tourists: in fact, the number of tourists is far-outpacing the number of those who die here.

That said, tourist deaths do happen, and forensic pathologist Dr. Sebastian Kunz recently compiled a comprehensive report on how they die. He spoke with the Grapevine on how you can keep from dying when visiting Iceland.

“The main cause of tourist deaths in Iceland are cardiac and pulmonary events, which means a natural cause of death,” he told us. “That being said, the main reason is, people come over here, some of them are at an advanced age, and they do things they wouldn’t normally do. When you’re on vacation, you tend to do things you wouldn’t normally do: hiking, climbing, snorkeling, diving, stuff like that. And [if you] do that in an environment you’re not used to, especially if you have a pre-existing condition, without consulting a doctor beforehand, or perhaps while thinking your physical condition is much better than it actually is, you’ll eventually over-exhaust your body.”

This is the case whether you’re hiking in the hills or going snorkeling in Silfra, the freshwater ravine in Þingvellir Natural Park, where a handful of tourist deaths have occurred. Dr. Sebastian addresses this issue in particular.

“The main incidences at Silfra were not related to any wrongdoing of the organisers of the diving team,” he told us. “Even if you don’t have a pre-existing condition, diving in Silfra can be quite breathtaking, so to speak. If you’re fit, it shouldn’t be a problem, but you still have to be careful. It’s different from diving or snorkeling in Miami, where you have very warm waters, than when you have water that’s about 4°C. It also depends how deep you go. In Silfra, you can go quite deep, and you have to ask yourself if you’ve gone that deep beforehand.”

In addition, there’s also the question of renting a car and taking to the open road.

“As anyone who has driven in Iceland can attest, if you drive in stormy weather in a rather large car, you have to know how to handle it,” he says. “There could be people who’ve never driven in snow and icy conditions or in high winds before. It’s not their fault; they just don’t know that you can easily get kicked off the road.”

Even the flight over to Iceland could be hazardous to your health, although not in the way you might think. If you’re flying over to Iceland from further away than western Europe or eastern North America, you might want to consider the risk of a pulmonary embolism.

“If you fly long distances, you’ve been sitting in a not very good position, considering your blood flow,” Dr. Sebastian explains. “And if you have a pre-existing condition, or you’re a smoker, or maybe a little overweight, a clot can develop in the lower legs, which then makes its way to the heart.” To prevent this, he recommends wearing compression socks, or simply getting up and walking up and down the aisle a few times during your flight.

Your vacation to Iceland does not need to end in tragedy, however. Dr. Sebastian offers some common sense advice for any would-be visitor to Iceland.

“It is very advisable to train,” he says. “And by training I don’t mean a daily eight-hour exercise, I just mean maybe doing some cardiovascular exercise once a week a few weeks before you come here. Some people would be amazed with how little they actually exercise. If you just sit in front of a computer all day, and then drive home, and you’re not going to the gym, you’re not really exercising that much. People underestimate that. Even if you’re active in your life, you’re not actually as active as you think you are.”


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