Taming the deadliest summer killer

July 5, 2014

Remember back in January and February, when we were faced with days where the temperature would maybe make it up to 9 or 10, when you had to dress like a polar explorer to get from your front door to your car (and hope the locks weren’t frozen once you got there), and you swore that never, never, never again would you complain about those hot, humidity-soaked days of summer?

Keep that in mind in the weeks ahead, as you crank the air conditioning up.

But summer heat is more than an inconvenience that can make us slightly sweaty and uncomfortable.

For all too many people, both in the United States and in other parts of the world, heat can be as sure a killer as pestilence and violence.

We were struck the other day when we saw that excessive heat kills more Americans than all other natural disasters combined.

Despite the fevered coverage of tornadoes and thunderstorms on the Weather Channel, and on local television news outlets when they sweep into our region, it’s those days when the temperature slowly, steadily and silently marches toward triple digits that more deaths occur.

Estimates vary, but some experts pegged the number of American lives lost every year as a result of extreme heat as being anywhere from 100 to 600, though it’s believed that heat exacerbates illnesses that kill close to 2,000 of our countrymen annually.

Among those most at risk are the elderly with weak hearts or respiratory systems and faltering kidneys, as well as young athletes who practice too long and too hard in sweltering conditions.

And it’s projected heat-related deaths will only get worse as the climate changes.

A report released last year by the Rollins School of Public Health at Atlanta’s Emory University projected that deaths resulting from heat waves will increase 10 times by the midpoint of this century.

On the East Coast, the number of people who die as a result of extreme heat could be somewhere around 2,000 by then, as opposed to the current 200.

That means there would be as many heat-related deaths per year in that part of the country than there was in the decade that elapsed between 1992 and 2001.

The National Resources Defense Council reported that, by the end of the 21st century, about 150,000 Americans will be claimed by killer summer heat in the 40 largest cities in the country.

By 2099, according to the council, there will be 1,000 additional heat-related deaths in Pittsburgh.

That’s better than Cleveland, which could see a staggering 16,000 more fatalities caused by heat, or Detroit, which could have 17,000.

Sure, there are some actions individuals can take to try to avoid the devastating effects of heat, such as finding air-conditioned shelters if their homes are not so equipped, staying well-hydrated and avoiding the use of alcohol or some illegal drugs, which can make people more sensitive to heat.

But the prospect of our summers getting hotter and hotter, and our children and grandchildren having years cut off their lives because of heat waves, should be enough for us to take action in the here and now.

We must reduce the amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere and encourage other nations to do likewise, in order to stem the worst effects of climate change.

If we do nothing, our descendants will have every right to curse our inaction and denial on summer days where the adjective “roasting” doesn’t begin to do justice to the outdoor temperature.



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