Three major U.S. cities – Chicago, Cincinnati and San Antonio – have adopted heat departments, as the effects of severe drought continue to spread across the country.
Their examples should alert people to be more diligent in searching for air conditioning units in homes and businesses, and bringing them up to the high standards needed by the country. If the air conditioner isn’t working or it’s not properly maintained, even a minor disruption can increase the risk of serious, even fatal, weather-related injury.
By definition, “heat emergency” refers to the natural occurrence of high temperatures, humidity, strong winds, and unhealthy air, which can present risks for people with medical conditions, and can cause considerable discomfort and even death.
A total of 2,944 people died in 2016 because of extreme heat, exceeding deaths during the years Katrina, Sandy and Sandy-like events. Clearly, this is a problem that should never be underestimated or brushed off.
The temperature reached 102 degrees in Chicago on November 21, setting the record as the third-hottest city in the United States. Chicagoans experience record heat every two years. Here in California, we have a whopping 52 days of 90 degrees or higher this year, tying 2016.
The problem affects more than one quarter of the population in every metropolitan area. Every city in the United States, excluding the most remote places, also has a population of at least 2 million.
Extreme heat causes major public health issues because it puts severe strain on those who are already sick or elderly, or have underlying medical conditions. The medical care crisis is looming large as the number of Americans in need of medical care continues to increase.
But saving lives does not start with heat.
Residents need to understand that heat conditions can cause many personal health problems.
Already, there is an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep apnea, high blood sugar, stroke, and dehydration.
Heat disrupts the normal processes in the body, causing individuals to lose their ability to fight off infection.
A heat rash can also form within a few hours. Fatigue may occur. Sunburn may happen.
The warm temperatures are not caused solely by global warming and drying out, although that is part of the problem, too.
Researchers have shown that other environmental conditions that are prevalent across the United States, such as air pollution, environmental toxins, waste and chemicals in the air and water, and agricultural pollutants can be harmful to human health.
It’s also important for people to recognize the dangers they face because of obesity and physical inactivity.
Obesity increases your chances of a heat stroke, heart attack, stroke, and muscle atrophy.
People who smoke and/or drink too much alcohol have also been shown to be more vulnerable to heat-related illness. They should also take extra care not to let any dirt or other contaminants build up in their skin or their homes, which may leave them more vulnerable to the heat.
These are just a few of the issues that should put folks on alert.
Everyone needs to keep these considerations in mind when their day to day life gets as hot as a thermometer this holiday season.
Joe Scrimshaw is executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the oldest foreign policy think tank in the United States focused on the Middle East.