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Recent Heat Wave Kills Six, Harms Health of Others

A child cools off in the heat.
Photo: moyerphotos / CC BY 2.0

By Ellen-Claire Newell, PSR Environment and Health Intern

This past weekend’s heat wave across the country had lethal consequences. According to estimates, six people have died from heat-related illnesses. Millions more endured the heat and may suffer subsequent health repercussions. The East Coast and Midwest experienced rare heat indexes climbing past 110°F.

Extreme heat is the biggest weather-based killer. It can cause dehydration and heat stroke. Dehydration is the result of the loss of water or the inadequate intake of water. On consecutive extreme heat days, it is more difficult to stay on top of drinking enough water, especially given how easy it is to sweat while outdoors, even for only a short time. Symptoms derived from dehydration include headaches, muscle cramps, dizziness, sleepiness or fainting. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion can occur when our internal body temperature rises above 103°F, which could result in the body’s cells breaking down, risking organ or muscle damage or even death.

Hot, sunny days also increase unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone, which is comprised of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). According to the American Lung Association and the Environmental Protection Agency, the inhalation of ground-level ozone constricts the respiratory airways and traps air in the alveoli, which are air sacs in the lungs. This can inflame or damage airways, increase the frequency of asthma attacks, and can worsen chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Long-term exposure to ozone is linked to permanent lung damage, such as decreased lung function in children.

The 0.8°C increase of average global temperature since 1880 has created more extreme weather, including more frequent intense hurricanes and flooding. This past June witnessed so much flooding in the Midwest, where many of the nation’s crops are produced, that only 58 percent of corn and 29 percent of soy could be planted as of May. Smaller harvests could drive up prices in grocery stores, leaving those who are food-insecure at risk for undernutrition.

A hotter planet leaves millions of people at risk of major health impacts. Greenhouse gas emissions that warm our climate will continue to raise overall global temperatures and cause more extreme weather events. Heat advisories tell people to be in air-conditioned places, to drink plenty of water and to stay out of the sun. Those with the means to get out of the heat and have air conditioning will be the safest from extreme heat. However, some people are not allowed this luxury. Construction workers, farmers and other outdoor laborers—even athletes— are all at immediate risk. The elderly, children, disabled, homeless, and people who lack access to air conditioning are also particularly vulnerable.

This past weekend was dangerous, and the frequency of dangerous days will only rise with the climate crisis. It is imperative for our nation to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources and energy efficiency to address the emergency before it’s too late.