As a sweltering heat wave hits much of the west coast, MediaFrolic’s Ari Shapiro speaks to Dr. Kristina Dahl from the Union of Concerned Scientists on the health risks of extreme heat.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It’s only the second day of summer, and temperatures in the US are already dangerous to human health. Last week it was 105 in Omaha, 118 in Phoenix, and 123 in Palm Springs. This will be more common as the earth warms, so we’ll talk to Kristina Dahl about how people can protect themselves from yet another hot summer. She is a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Nice that you are here.
KRISTINA DAHL: It’s great to be here.
SHAPIRO: Before we get into the practical steps people should be taking, how unusual are these temperatures this early in the season?
DAHL: It’s very unusual to have such intense and prolonged heat so early in the season. I mean, we usually see places that get these temperatures in the hottest parts of summer – late July, August, sometimes even early September. But it is unusual for so many records to be broken before the official start of the summer season.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. And every year we hear of people in America dying of heat. Which groups are most at risk?
DAHL: That’s right. We often call heat the silent killer. Of all the weather extremes, the most common cause of death is extreme heat. It usually kills more people in any given year than something like hurricanes or droughts.
DAHL: So it is extremely important to take care of our health in extreme heat. The people most at risk are older adults. As you get older, your body has more difficulty regulating your temperature. As a result, adults have a harder time releasing the heat that builds up in their bodies when it is extremely hot outside. We also see high risks for athletes. When we are young and healthy it is more difficult to listen to the early signs of heat illness your body is trying to give you. And so unfortunately every year people who are otherwise fit and healthy die from the effects of extreme heat.
SHAPIRO: Well, let’s talk about these particular groups. I mean, what do you recommend to seniors to protect themselves or their neighbors or older relatives?
DAHL: So, if you are not older, it is important to drop by your older neighbors and relatives to make sure they have a chance to cool off. Understanding how heat can affect your health is very important if you are an older adult. So some of these early symptoms are dizziness or headache or extreme fatigue. When you experience this, regardless of your age, you should take some time to lie down and rest. Drinking water. And if you can, go to a cool place.
SHAPIRO: There are people who have to work outdoors in all weathers, maybe in construction or landscaping. In addition to experiencing symptoms of heat stroke, are there things you can do to maintain your health in these extreme temperatures?
DAHL: So in these cases, people need to know what these early symptoms of heat-related illness are. But it is also up to the employers to provide adequate drinking breaks, rest breaks, shade, cooling off, perhaps even shifting working hours to earlier, cooler times of the day. So we cannot put the whole burden on the workers themselves, as the work is often designed in such a way that it does not encourage breaks.
SHAPIRO: You said that young and otherwise healthy people sometimes overwork because they think they are invincible. So if you are a parent, coach, or student athlete, what would you suggest these groups look out for?
DAHL: When it comes to heat, it’s incredibly important not to overwork, because when it’s really hot outside, when it’s really humid outside, the body has a harder time releasing the heat it has accumulated for a variety of reasons. For example, if it’s very damp, the sweat on your skin will have a harder time evaporating. And it is this evaporation of sweat that makes your body really cooling.
SHAPIRO: I just think – I live in Washington, DC, which is a notoriously hot and humid city. And I love going for a run and sweating it out and being exhausted. And it sounds like you’re saying I’m playing with my health with it. Maybe I should reconsider.
DAHL: I would just say, watch out. You know your body and you know its limits. So it is not that you have to do without outdoor sports completely in the heat, but simply pay attention. And if you get dizzy, if you get a headache, if you really slow down, listen to the warning signs your body is giving you and take a break.
SHAPIRO: Kristina Dahl is a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Thank you for helping us start this summer season.
DAHL: Thank you very much.
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