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During the past few months, we have witnessed some of the dangerous effects of climate change. We have seen drought, wildfires, and superstorms ravage communities. Earlier last month, the ocean burned when a gas pipeline burst in the Gulf of Mexico. These are some of the extreme events recently brought on by climate change and harmful human practices. But there is another dangerous crisis at hand that is affecting thousands of lives, and that is heat illness.
In the northern hemisphere we have been experiencing the summer season, a warm and sunny time of the year many look forward to as a pleasant and relaxing season. However, in recent years, this season has become a dangerous time for some. Just last month, many countries experienced extreme heatwaves and record-breaking temperatures, putting many individuals at risk for heat-related illnesses and even death.
Many areas, especially far up north, are not built to handle extreme heat and in fact, some northern buildings were built specifically to keep heat in!
As the climate change crisis continues to impact our lives, it’s important we learn how to navigate these rising temperatures and keep ourselves and at-risk individuals safe.
Watch for symptoms of heat illness
According to the CDC, about 700 people die in the U.S. each year from heat-related exposure. Most often these individuals are older adults, young children, and people with chronic illnesses.
Heat illness is also unfortunately more likely to affect low-income individuals as low-income areas are often less protected from heat or not equipped to properly handle increasing temperatures. Historically, low-income and urban housing has been occupied by minority ethnic groups and people of color, meaning these groups are likely to suffer more from the effects of rising temperatures.
Be on the lookout for symptoms of heat illness. Common heat illnesses include, from mildest to most dangerous: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Anyone experiencing symptoms of heat illness should rest, stay hydrated, and remain cool.
Early symptoms of heat illness include headaches, dizziness, or extreme tiredness. Symptoms of heat stroke, which is life threatening, include:
- Change in mental state, such as confusion, hallucinations (seeing or hearing things) and slurred speech
- Increased body temperature — 104 degrees F or higher
- Hot, red, dry skin with no sweating
- Rapid breathing
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Trouble walking
Staying cool during unprecedented heatwaves
This summer temperatures have risen to record highs in parts of the world that have never had to grapple with intense heat.
While southerners may scoff at what some consider “hot” we need to remember that many areas up north historically were built with the purpose of keeping heat inside. Before rapid global warming, northern regions typically did not experience high temperatures and remained fairly cool throughout the year. Homes and buildings were created with the purpose of keeping inhabitants warm throughout the harsh winter months. Now, these buildings are becoming hazards to individuals as the summer months have shifted from pleasant temperatures to scorching heat.
Heat alone is not the only concern. Humidity is another important factor that affects the body’s experience of heat. Humidity actually makes it harder for our bodies to cool down. When there is humidity, it becomes harder for sweat to evaporate off the skin. The evaporation of sweat is what allows our bodies to cool down. Because of this, humidity is often factored in with temperature in what is known as the “heat index.” The heat index describes what temperature it “feels like” to our bodies, since humidity can often make temperatures feel hotter than the number on the thermostat. Those living in humid areas should keep an eye on the heat index and not only the temperature.
To keep yourself cool during unprecedented heatwaves and avoid heat illness, there are a few key strategies to follow.
Stay hydrated. Drinking water or sports drinks is best when battling the heat. Avoid alcohol as it can actually make you more dehydrated.
Dress appropriately. Wear light-colored, loose clothing. Dark colors will absorb heat, which will only make you feel hotter. Light colors will reflect sunlight, keeping you cooler.
Remain in cool, shaded areas. An air conditioned indoor area is best for staying cool during extreme heat, but if AC is not an option, then remain in shaded areas with good air ventilation. During the day you can practice “passive cooling” techniques such as putting down the shades on windows as soon as the sun comes up, installing reflective materials or painting roofs white, and taking advantage of natural shade from nature. Using fans indoors is also recommended but only if the temperature indoors is below 95 degrees. Fan-use in higher temperatures actually makes it more difficult for the body to cool down.
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The passive cooling movement is particularly effective for those who live in buildings where AC is not an option. AC use also contributes to much of the pollution affecting the atmosphere today and causing the rise in temperatures. Part of the movement to combat heat illness and issues includes advocating for green policies and reforms. Individual action will not be enough to combat the effects of rising temperatures moving forward. Communities need to come together to plant more trees, providing more shade and shelter, especially in urban areas that are prone to becoming urban heat islands. Other community initiatives to combat rising heat dangers include replacing materials in buildings to retain cool temperatures, such as installing tile on floors, painting roofs, and adding external shutters to windows.
Supporting these initiatives and staying informed about the dangers of heat illness and rising temperatures is the first step to combating this climate crisis and reversing the effects of climate change.