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Publication date: Aug. 2, 2006


As heat records continue to fall, and the population increases, ages, and sometimes becomes more isolated, more people are becoming vulnerable to death and illness caused by extreme heat. That's a particularly serious concern when power outages caused by high electricity demand, storms, or other problems occur, as they have all across the US in the past few weeks.

Heat is the second-leading cause of natural disaster deaths in the US, trailing only extreme cold and ahead of hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, floods, and other natural disasters, according to the National Weather Service.

Many government agencies are becoming more aware of this problem. They are beginning to take steps to better prepare residents for heat waves and to assist them when the heat strikes. A city's news media play a major role in these efforts.

Cities on the leading edge (e.g. Philadelphia and Chicago) deliver help via channels which you might not think of and which may be good sources for stories. Some include:

"Block captains" appointed to help out in emergencies
Church organizations
Mail carriers
Disability organizations
Other potentially interesting resources include health-care workers staffing hotlines and making house calls; "buddy systems" that help people look after each other; homeless people; schools that modify their dress codes to lighten students' load; water utilities that electronically monitor fire hydrants to reduce problems from those turned on illegally; and utility companies that help consumers reduce the heat vulnerability of their homes, particularly through passive, unpowered methods. For more on these efforts, see the US EPA's "Heat Wave Response Programs."

The target audience for these programs often is perceived as primarily the elderly. But many other groups are vulnerable, including small children, the chronically ill, poor people who can't afford air conditioning or who have had their power turned off, and people who have problems with their weight or alcohol or are using certain drugs.

Cities particularly vulnerable tend to be ones that get extreme heat only irregularly, especially along the northern tier of the US, according to Kent State Univ. Associate Professor Scott Sheridan, 330-672-3224, email. Other cities with increased problems are those with higher pollution levels, because pollution adds biological stress.

Within cities, a number of studies have found that the greatest problems occur in inner cities, where conditions such as heat buildup, increased pollution, and higher poverty may combine to create greater problems.

But a 2004 study by Sheridan and others found that the 10% increase in ambulance calls in Toronto during extreme heat was also focused on lakeside areas where people had gone to seek refuge, and at industrial and other recreational areas. An earlier study by Sheridan and others found that some rural areas also are at high risk.

Sheridan is working with EPA and the National Weather Service to adopt more sophisticated forecasting and awareness programs, which are already in place in at least two dozen cities in the US and Canada (see URL above, 2004 report, "Progress in Heat Watch-Warning System Technology"). Minneapolis and Baltimore joined that list this year.

He's also pondering ways to improve agency and resident preparation for and response to heat waves, after discovering during recent research (to be published in the International Journal of Biometeorology) that only half the residents made any special attempt to protect themselves, beyond staying indoors (release). His research suggests that more and better self-protection efforts are made when cities do a more effective job of educating residents and the media in advance of heat emergencies.

Some of the many steps that people can take to avoid problems, before and during a heat wave, are highlighted by the American Red Cross.

EPA provides links to many other resources, such as the CDC, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Last revised January 22, 2013

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