By TRUDY DUNHAM
Climate change means we are experiencing more extreme weather. In the summer, we will experience more days that are hotter than average, and more nights that don’t cool down. Those of us without air conditioning, and those of us who usually work and play outdoors, are likely to suffer. We will need to adapt our behavior (limit strenuous activity during the hottest days) and adopt practices to keep cooler and healthy.
Heat can be deadly. You likely know that heat stroke and heat exhaustion are a result of the body overheating (to 105° F). But you may not realize how quickly overheating can damage the brain and other internal organs. Call 911, but cooling within 30 minutes is essential to maximize survival. Many summer sports training and events now provide an ice bath to immediately immerse an athlete in case of an emergency.
Anyone who spends time outdoors in strenuous activity is at risk. This includes runners, sports teams, youth engaged in outdoor activities, construction workers, farmers, gardeners, and homeless people. Small children and pets depend on your ability to recognize when they are heat stressed.
Older adults are especially vulnerable to extreme heat as they may be less likely to sense and respond to changes in temperature. They may have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat. And, some prescription medication reduces the body’s ability to regulate its temperature or inhibit perspiration.
Acclimating, or getting used to heat stress, is a key factor. Most serious health problems and deaths due to heat occur within the first few days of starting strenuous work or exercise in the sun. Your body needs about two weeks to acclimate to extreme heat. Factor this into your schedule. Start with shorter periods of activity and allow lots of breaks to rest and cool off. You can gradually increase the duration and strenuousness of activity each day as your body gets used to the stress.
Staying hydrated is vital. When it is hot, you will be sweating even if you aren’t aware of it. For every 1% loss in body mass, your body temperature will increase by a half degree Fahrenheit. You want to minimize the loss of fluids during exercise to reduce the risk of heat stroke.
We often hear the heat index as a measure of extreme heat, but remember that it is calculated for shady areas. If you work or exercise in the direct sun, consider using the standard used by the military and OSHA: the WetBulb Globe Temperature (WBGT). It measures heat stress in direct sunlight and offers guidelines for the number and length of breaks (http://www.srh.noaa.gov/tsa/?n=wbgt).
So how can we cope?
• If you have one, use your air conditioner. Make sure it works before you need it. Many of the people who have died during extreme heat events had air conditioners but failed to use them due to cost concerns, or because they are broken. Your life and health are worth the cost!
• If you don’t have an air conditioner, find an accessible place that does. Libraries, stores, and movie theaters are good options.
• On the hottest days limit the use of your oven or stove, which will only make your house hotter.
• Wear loose, lightweight clothing.
• Take cool showers or baths, or wrap a wet towel or scarf around your neck to cool down.
• Drink more water than usual: throughout the day and before, during and after exercise. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink. Carry a water bottle with you and use it. Limit the intake of alcohol and caffeine.
• Don’t rush. Assume tasks will take longer because you are building in more and longer breaks.
• Schedule more strenuous outdoor tasks for early morning or evening when it is cooler.
• Take your breaks in the shade or inside: this is time for your body to cool down, as well as to rest.
• Don’t forget that pets suffer from heat—bring them inside where it is air-conditioned, provide shade for them, schedule walks in early morning or evening when it is cooler, and provide lots of water.
• Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are characterized by confusion, dizziness, and collapse. You may not realize how hot or ill you are. So on those extreme heat days, have someone check on you! And do the same for others!
More health and safety tips and resources to deal with extreme heat can be found at www.ready.gov/heat and emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/heat_guide.asp.
The Ready & Resilient Hamline Midway project is an initiative of the Hamline Midway Environmental Group (HMEG) to build climate change resilience in our community.