Heat waves are more dangerous than you think. Here’s why and how to stay safe | CU Boulder Today
The numbers are staggering: As of Wednesday, Phoenix had reached 20 consecutive days of temperatures at 110 degrees F (43 degrees C) or higher; El Paso, Texas, has been sweltering for 33 days above 100°F. Las Vegas is under an excessive heat warning, and is expected to reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit this week.
Even Colorado, which had enjoyed a relatively cool early summer, was bracing for temperatures in the mid-to-upper 90s starting Sunday and extending into next week.
Excessive heat can sicken and, in some cases, kill, said Colleen Reed, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. During the heat wave that Europe witnessed last summer, 62,000 people died. However, the threat posed by heat is often underestimated.
“People tend to say, ‘Oh, it’s hot.’ I’m used to being hot. Extreme heat kills more people in the United States each year than “Any other climate catastrophe.”
The University of Colorado Boulder Today spoke with Reid about how heat affects health, who is most at risk, and what people can do to protect themselves.
Heat waves are deceptively dangerous. Why?
The interesting thing about heat is that you don’t see it. You look out your window and don’t see a tornado, tornado, or fire. It looks mundane, and without clear images, it will be difficult to make people understand how serious the threat is. Many people do not take necessary precautions.
Temperatures across the country are now all over the place. Is this the new normal?
We’ll definitely see more of this in the future. We are already seeing heatwaves that are hotter, longer and more frequent than we saw 10 or 20 years ago, and that is exactly what climate scientists predicted. Unfortunately, expectations indicate that the situation will get worse.
What happens inside your body when you are exposed to extreme heat?
Your body is trying to cool down as much as it can, so you sweat more. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes, and you need those electrolytes to do many different body functions. You are also losing fluids and thus may become dehydrated, which can cause confusion and prevent the good judgment required to stop and calm down. If you can’t cool down, your insides are basically cooking.
We know from research that people are more likely to suffer heatstroke and show up at the hospital or emergency department with electrolyte imbalance or kidney problems during a heatwave. More than 700 people die in the United States each year from heat-related illness. (By comparison, about 88 people died in floods and 68 in hurricanes.)
Are there certain population groups that are particularly at risk?
People who suffer from kidney disease, as the kidneys are greatly affected by heat. Some prescription medications (including psychotropic medications, diuretics, and Parkinson’s disease medications) also interfere with body temperature regulation. Older people, as their bodies have difficulty with thermoregulation due to the natural aging process. Likewise, really young children, especially those who are too young to use words to explain their discomfort. And of course anyone who does not have access to places to calm down.
Are there social and economic factors at play here as well?
Yes. We know from my research and the research of others that homes with air conditioning are more likely to be homes owned by wealthier families. Even when people have air conditioning but struggle to pay their electric bill, they don’t always turn it on. People of low economic resources also tend to live in communities with less tree cover and fewer parks, and areas with vegetation are cooler than areas filled with concrete.
It has also been documented that even when controlling for income, majority-white communities have more green space, and black and brown communities tend to have less green space. There is environmental injustice there. Cities are getting hotter and hotter, and the most vulnerable individuals — the people least likely to have air conditioning — are also the people least likely to have a nearby park to cool off.
How can individuals protect themselves?
When you hear that there is an extreme heat warning, take note and adjust what you do that day or at least when you do it. If you’re going to exercise outdoors, try to do so before the temperature gets too hot. Regarding work, Colorado has a law to protect agricultural workers by requiring employers to provide shade and water breaks. But not all outdoor workers — such as construction workers or roofers — have these laws in place in Colorado.
If you must go out in hot weather, drink plenty of fluids, including electrolyte drinks. Don’t drink alcohol or other things that dehydrate you. Seek shade when you can.
How can society prepare for a hotter future?
We need to do everything we can to stop the emission of fossil fuels to try to slow climate change. But this will take a long time to have an effect.
In the meantime, we need to protect people’s health now and step up efforts to confront the fact that it will get worse in the future. We need to think about the shift when the workday is at the hottest time of the year. Indeed, in Arizona, some construction work takes place at night. We need to think about the shift when sports practices are intended for children. We need to make plans to help vulnerable individuals when a heat wave occurs.
How do we help the most vulnerable people?
Cooling centers are great, but you need to advertise their existence and you need to provide transportation to them, because many of the people who need them most do not have their own cars. These centers also need to allow pets, because people don’t want to let their pets suffer in the heat.
There are a lot of people who don’t want to go to a community cooling center, but if you say they can go to the movies or to the library or to the grocery store or a mall and spend some time to cool down their body because their core body temperature is low, they might go for it. There are also efforts to create networks where people check on their elderly neighbors who live alone and who may be overheating and not realize it.
Most importantly, we have to realize that extreme heat can kill, and we have to take it seriously.