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Warning: This summer may be hotter, deadlier than last

Teresa Tanoos's picture
This summer may be hotter than last, with more heat-related deaths and illness

Federal health officials are warning that this summer may be hotter than last year, with more intense storms that could kill people and knock out power for days.

As summers get longer and hotter due to climate change, and storms that cause widespread blackouts become increasingly common and more intense, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released new data on heat-related deaths, which suggests that public health officials have been underestimating them.

According to Ethel Taylor and colleagues at the CDC, over 7,200 people died from excess heat between 1999 and 2009.

The latest numbers, part of the CDC’s weekly report in death and illness, list non-residents for the first time, a group that includes illegal immigrants, tourists, migrant workers and others. These groups suffer especially when it gets hot, Taylor says.

“About 15 percent of the heat-related deaths we have seen over 10 years are occurring in non-US residents,” she said, which adds up to about 1,000 people.

The CDC is currently trying to find out more about these heat-related deaths, including who the victims were and why they’re being killed disproportionately by heat. During the last 10 years, 40 percent of the deaths occurred in only three states: California, Arizona and Texas.

All three states are located on the border in the south, and all have a lot of desert and agriculture. Therefore, the victims could have been illegal immigrants who were trying to cross the border, but died from the heat.

Taylor says it’s important to get more information about them, and the CDC’s George Luber agrees.

Luber says it’s important because longer, hotter and more extreme weather is here to stay; thus, it’s increasing awareness about the dangers such heat can cause is necessary to prevent heat-related deaths.

“The most serious hurricanes are increasing in frequency…and that is driven by climate change,” Luber added.

While weather forecasters emphasize that it is impossible to confirm if climate change was caused by any particular storm or heat wave, Luber says that the patterns are clearly changing – and that can positively be attributed to climate change.

“The sheer magnitude of these weather events are a challenge to public health,” Luber said.

One example is the “derecho” that hit some eastern states last July, as the storm first blew in on June 29, when it knocked down trees with tornado-force winds – and blew them straight across the land (instead of sucking them into a twisting vortex like a tornado).

For eight days in some places where the dericho hit, all power was knocked out for days – just when a 2-week long heat wave moved in as well. The hardest hit states were Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio, where the CDC confirmed 32 heat-related deaths during that period – at a rate of 1.1 deaths per 100,000 people.

And that’s just last year. As Taylor points out, the U.S. has seen worse. A heat wave in Chicago in 1995, for example, killed 514 people at a rate of 9.7 deaths per 100,000 people. Then in 1993, a Philadelphia heat wave resulted in the deaths of 118 people at a rate of 7.5 per 100,000.

“We were very excited to see the number of deaths down,” said Taylor in comparison to the four states hardest hit from last summer’s heat-wave.

Taylor said all four states had plans in place to deal with the heat, which included sending National Guardsmen to go door-to-door in West Virginia and using college students in Ohio to do the same.

“They were encouraging people to get to cooling stations,” said Taylor. “It seems like it really did help reduce the number of heat-related deaths.” She added that they “did a really fabulous job of responding to this event.”

Regardless, there are people living in cities and suburbs across the U.S. who are also suffering from heat-related illness and death each year, Taylor said.

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“We have done quite a bit in trying to get the message out,” she said. “Heat is kind of an insidious killer, and it easy for people not to realize they are at risk.”

Heat-related deaths are frequently discovered in homes where the victims had no air conditioning, or else it was turned off. During extreme heat, fans alone will not be sufficient to cool people down. And, according to the CDC, the elderly are especially at risk, as they may not even recognize they’re at risk.

Indeed, of all the heat-related deaths that occur, 40 percent are age 65 and older.

Symptoms of heat illness can be subtle, but make people severely ill. Heat-related illness often strikes before people even realize they’re in danger.

Symptoms for heat exhaustion include heavy sweating and exhaustion, which some victims may think is just a normal part of being hot. Additional symptoms include cold and clammy skin; a fast and weak pulse; and nausea or fainting.

Heatstroke is a more immediate emergency that occurs when body temperature soars to 103 degrees or higher. When that happens, the pulse quickens and the skin may become red and dry. According to the CDC, heatstroke can cause deadly swelling of the brain, liver and kidney failure. Therefore, the agency advises people to call 911 right away if such symptoms occur.

In the meantime, the best defense is prevention when it comes to reducing your risk of heat-related illness.

The CDC offers the following tips on its website to help prevent heat-related illness:

• Drink more fluids (nonalcoholic), regardless of your activity level. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Warning: If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask him how much you should drink while the weather is hot.

• Don’t drink liquids that contain alcohol or large amounts of sugar–these actually cause you to lose more body fluid. Also, avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.

• Stay indoors and, if at all possible, stay in an air-conditioned place. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library–even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler when you go back into the heat. Call your local health department to see if there are any heat-relief shelters in your area.

• Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, fans will not prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath, or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off.

• Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

• NEVER leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle.

• Although any one at any time can suffer from heat-related illness, some people are at greater risk than others. Check regularly on:
o Infants and young children
o People aged 65 or older
o People who have a mental illness
o Those who are physically ill, especially with heart disease or high blood pressure

• Visit adults at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Infants and young children, of course, need much more frequent watching.

Since more extreme heat is expected this summer, the CDC’s Luber says that following such tips are important for everyone, no matter where you live.

“Climate predictions and observations are suggesting that the magnitude of extreme weather events is increasing,” he says. “So we expect these more frequently.”

Luber also pointed out that heat waves are often associated with stagnant air and air pollution, which puts people with respiratory and heart conditions especially at risk.

SOURCE: 1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Weekly Morbidity Report, June 7, 2013; 2. “Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness” (CDC website)