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August 4, 2011 

Record Heat and Humidity Increase Risks for High School Football Players, Scientists Say

With More Heat Risk, Coaches Need to Closely Follow Safety Guidelines

WASHINGTON (August 4, 2011)—The combination of more frequent heat waves and overweight players is increasing the risk of heat-related illness and death for high school football players, according to scientists participating in a telephone press conference held today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

To protect their players, the speakers said, high school coaches need to be more diligent in following guidelines for teenagers practicing in high heat and humidity.

“This is not just about making sure players drink a lot of liquids,” said Michael Bergeron, director of the National Institute for Athletic Health and Performance at Sanford Health, and one of the country’s leading authorities on how young athletes are affected by exercising in hot weather. “It’s also about making sure they have the time to get acclimated to practicing under these conditions and adjusting the work-to-rest ratio appropriately. 

“Even when athletes are well-hydrated, if it’s hot enough and you go hard enough, people can die,” added Bergeron, who has written guidelines for what coaches can do to reduce the risks to their players. "The bottom line is, heat-related deaths on the athletic field are preventable “

Earlier this week, two high school football players in Georgia and another in South Carolina died of apparent heat-related illnesses, and last week a high school assistant coach in Texas died after collapsing during a practice.

Another speaker on the press call, Andrew Grundstein, of the Climatology Research Laboratory at the University of Georgia, has analyzed heat-related deaths of football players since 1980. Among his findings:

  • The death rate has increased since the mid-1990s
  • Nearly 95 percent of those who died would be considered overweight based on their body mass index
  • Most of the deaths occurred early in the August practice period, with nearly 25 percent happening during the first three days of practice
  • The overwhelming majority—86 percent—of those who died were linemen
  • Most of the deaths occurred in the eastern half of the United States

Grundstein also discovered that the conventional wisdom that coaches can reduce the risk by practicing in the morning is inaccurate.

“That’s one thing that surprised us,” said Grundstein.  “Many coaches assume that morning practices are safer because they are cooler. But almost 60 percent of the deaths came after exposure during morning practices. The mornings may be cooler, but they also may be more humid which can increase the heat stress.”

Deke Arndt, chief of the Climate Monitoring Branch of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, said that based on climate change projections, record temperatures and intense heat waves are likely to occur more frequently in the future. He also pointed out that many U.S. cities have set records for overnight temperatures this summer, which often is associated with higher humidity.

“Overnight temperatures don’t get as much attention as record highs,” Arndt said, “but in recent summers, we’ve been seeing that extremes in warmer low temperatures have been outpacing those for afternoon temperatures in terms of setting records.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control reported that an average of 6,000 people go to emergency rooms every year for heat-related illnesses during sports or recreational activities. The highest percentage of them are males between the ages of 15 and 19.

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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