How Much of a Health Risk is Posed by Increasingly Common Heat Waves?

Ask a Scientist - August 2012

This month, Senior Staff Writer Seth Shulman conducted a Q & A session with Jalonne L. White-Newsome, a Kendall Science Fellow in Climate Change and Public Health at the Union of Concerned Scientists, to talk about the health effects from extreme heat. The Kendall Science Fellows Program was established in 2008 to honor UCS co-founder and Nobel Laureate Henry Kendall. Fellows undertake innovative, forward-looking policy-relevant research in their fields.

 

SS: Given your specialty on the effects of extreme heat on public health, you must be very busy this time of year.

JW: Well, it is definitely easier to get people’s attention on this subject with so many heat waves all across the country. But you know, as I near the halfway point of my two years as the first Kendall fellow, it has really been a great opportunity to conduct research in this area all year round. It’s been an honor to represent Henry Kendall’s vision of allowing people to think out of the box and dig in on research projects in their fields. Plus, it is my first time in the nonprofit world and UCS has a well-deserved reputation for being a science-based organization and I’ve learned just how respected the organization’s scientists are in the wider community, so that’s been great.


SS: How did you decide to study the connections between heat and public health?

JW: Going into my graduate work, I was planning to study asthma which is also a huge and growing public health problem. But, at the time, a number of things came together for me and one of them was that, having grown up in Detroit, I had experienced a couple of intensely hot summers and my grandparents who live there were in their eighties and nineties and were dealing with medical issues that were exacerbated by the heat. The issue became very real to me on a personal level. At about that time, the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, was in the process of developing a project with the city of Detroit’s Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, and the timing was perfect. What the city was interested in pursuing, was also in line with my interests—to help those at highest risk in the heat. I wanted to learn what I might do to help protect seniors and others at high risk. You know, nowadays people are really starting to talk about this issue. But at that time, five years ago, you really didn’t hear too much about it at all.


SS: So, especially given the time of year, it would be helpful for you to explain: what are the main health effects we’re talking about? What should people look out for in extreme heat?

JW:  Well, there’s a progression of health effects that can be caused by extreme heat. For the regular person in their home, concerns start with dehydration and the potential of heat exhaustion. Both of these can arise if even healthy people overdo what they’re doing inside or outside. So it’s important to stay hydrated and watch for signs of exhaustion. If you ignore them, these mild symptoms can progress into something more if you don’t nip them in the bud. There are also other body indicators that let us know something is going on. For example, sweating is good for helping your body to cool off and regulate its temperature.  However, if you stop sweating in the heat, this is a sign of trouble. When the body has a hard time cooling down, certain body systems become overworked, certain organ functions can begin to fail, which can lead to heat stroke, and in the worse cases, death. A frightening piece of this is that people don’t always understand these signs as they are experiencing them, so they miss the signals. Those with pre-existing conditions—such as respiratory or cardiovascular related conditions, or diabetes—should take care to monitor their health especially carefully in extreme heat.

SS: You are one of the authors of UCS’s new report “Heat in the Heartland.” The report focuses particularly on the Midwest. Why is that?

JW: Well, as we show in the report, dramatic climate change is taking place there and yet, in many parts of the Midwest, many people still don’t seem to think heat is an issue. We felt that it was important to focus on the Midwest, because people there are both particularly vulnerable to extreme heat from global warming and also often not well prepared to deal with the hot weather. Our report shows that summers in Midwestern states are already significantly hotter and likely to continue to get hotter still. And, to a large extent, the public is not as well protected in that region as it could be.

SS: So we have certainly heard of extreme heat waves such as the one that struck Chicago in 1995, or the more recent one in Russia, in which many people died. What steps can be taken to minimize that kind of toll? Are the public agencies you have studied taking the right steps?

JW: The major thing is for state, county, and municipal agencies to simply realize that heat poses a significant health risk. There are still a lot of agencies with public health roles that don’t sufficiently recognize what a serious threat to health extreme heat can be. So you need leadership to put ‘heat’ on the agenda and make it a priority.

The second point is that this is not rocket science. Every heat-related illness is preventable.

What it takes is basically integrating our understanding about this threat into existing programs. In our report, we found that most of the cities we highlighted are doing something, which is good. The key here is if you already have a plan for flooding, or extreme cold, or other emergencies, you have already figured out ways to reach out to at-risk populations. In the case of extreme heat, these will be many of the same people. So, you can connect these most vulnerable populations with whatever services you can offer, whether it is designated 24-hour cooling centers, transportation to an air-conditioned mall or public library, or just simply checking in on high-risk populations, such as seniors in poorly ventilated high rises, for instance.

This doesn’t have to just be the job of agencies, either. Neighbors who understand the health threat posed by extreme heat can simply make a point on checking in on others. If you know that Mrs. Smith down the street is elderly and has a health condition, for instance, it’s a great idea to simply knock on her door and make sure she’s okay.

My work has been to try to help get agencies prepared on this issue. I think the heat waves we’ve been seeing this summer and last summer are really just a wake-up call. Cities and towns in the Midwest and elsewhere should recognize that they need to put plans in place. The way things are going with global warming, in the future, they really aren’t going to have a choice!

As a UCS Kendall Science Fellow in climate change and public health, Jalonne L. White-Newsome researches the cost of heat-related illness in the United States and steps that communities can take to protect vulnerable populations from extreme heat. Dr. White-Newsome received her Ph.D. in environmental health sciences at the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health. Her research there focused on understanding public health impacts of extreme heat events, especially indoor heat exposure for urban-dwelling seniors.

 

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