Harmed by heat: Covering the health risks of extreme weather

In the news
As public health officials began late last week to warn of the risks of extreme heat temperatures, posting heat advisories in 23 states, dangerous temperatures and humidity moved across the central United States, spreading eastward this past weekend into early this week.

Back story
Heat is a leading weather-related killer in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. Some populations are more vulnerable to extreme heat, such as the elderly, the very young, the low income, and outdoor workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extreme heat causes an average of 658 deaths a year, more than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and lightning combined. In addition, an Environmental Protection Agency report tallies more than 9,000 deaths since 1979 that listed heat as the underlying cause. However, that number may be severely over-reported because of the lack of standards over what constitutes a heat-related death.

Adaptation angle

  • Access to air conditioning is generally cited as the most immediate response to the threat of high heat, including providing cooling centers for those who can’t afford their own AC.
  • Long term, AC may contribute to the problem of rising temperatures, adding heat to the outdoor environment, as well as strain the power infrastructure and risk debilitating power outages.
  • Cities amplify heat wave risk through lack of shady vegetation, use of heat-soaking building materials and even the height and spacing of buildings.
  • Cities worsen the risk of heat-related illness during heat waves because they also tend to have higher temperatures at night, which is when the body normally cools off after hot daytime weather.
  • Programs such as cool or green roofs, greater greenery and cool pavements can reduce urban heat islands.

Questions to ask

  • Is your community especially vulnerable to heat waves because of its geography, size or other factors?
  • Are public health concerns greater because of the presence of at-risk populations?
  • How many cooling centers does your community have for those without AC?
  • Are programs in place to finance AC for the poor?
  • How effective is your community’s emergency warning and emergency response system in dealing with heat-related illnesses that arise with heat waves?
  • What kind of urban heat island challenges might your community face?
  • Are community leaders instituting cooling programs such as green roofs or urban forests?

Reporting resources

Plus, dig deeper on the heat wave and health story using annotated heat wave-related resources in the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation database.

Know of other health-related heat resources we should have in our database?

Posted by A. Adam Glenn on July 27, 2016