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Posted at 12:54 PM ET, 07/02/2012

Extreme heat and power outages: Double trouble for human health


(Matt McClain - FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Heat is a silent killer, that preys on older adults, people with medical conitions, and the frail. In a typical year, it kills more people than any other weather hazard. The best protection from heat-related illness and death is air conditioning. But, when the power goes out during a heat wave, that protection erodes.

Link: Capital Weather Gang heat wave and hot weather guide

With hundreds of thousands of customers still without power in the mid-Atlantic following Friday night’s destructive derecho and hot temperatures forecast through the week, the risk of heat-related health problems is elevated.

Even before the mass outages Friday night, a Va. health department spokeswoman said that since June 20, six heat-related deaths had occurred statewide through Friday. Two heat-related deaths have occurred in Maryland from the recent heat wave.

Through the upcoming week, high temperatures are forecast to range from 92-100. Moderate to high humidity levels will make it feel several degrees warmer, at least. Only modest relief will occur at night, with lows mainly the 70s. A lack of nighttime cooling can tax the body. Cautions NOAA:

Warm nights with temperatures above 70° hinders the body’s ability to cool and creating even more heat stress for the next day.

Without air conditioning, indoor air temperatures are likely to exceed 80 degrees, and may near 90 on higher floors, as hot air rises (tip: if you live in a multi-level residence, cannot relocate to an air conditioned environment and have the option - sleep on the lowest floor).

Heat-related deaths are preventable, but a lack of air conditioning makes the job more difficult.

Local governments around the region have responded, by opening cooling centers and extending their hours.

But some people may have difficulty getting to cooling centers due to mobility impairments. And individuals with mental illness may not recognize the warning signs of heat-related illness and take the appropriate actions.

Not to mention, even those who go to cooling centers may return to residences that have baked in the heat all day.

Some advice...

Caregivers and the greater community play a critical role in helping the most vulnerable.

It is especially important to check on older adults with pre-existing medical conditions who live alone. If possible, help them get to an air-conditioned environment during the day as well as at night for sleeping if they are without power.

Also, know the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and the appropriate actions to take. The Post’s Lena Sun recently described these in some detail last week. In short, if you or someone you know are starting to feel ill due to heat, get to a cooler place immediately and hydrate. No alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.

If a cooler place is not available, a cool shower or bath can be very helpful. If a fever has come on - a sign of heat stroke - get emergency medical assistance immediately and take steps to cool down until help arrives.

The dangerous duo of extreme heat and power outages may become a recurring challenge. In February, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory of the Department of Energy released a report “Climate Change and Infrastructure, Urban Systems, and Vulnerabilities” which said extreme heat can increase demand for cooling, straining power systems and leading to blackouts.

These circumstances could become more frequent if climate change increases the intensity, frequency and duration of summer heat waves as predicted. World Wildlife Fund’s Nick Sundt has an excellent blog post on rising temperatures and our nation’s vulnerable electric grid.

By  |  12:54 PM ET, 07/02/2012

 
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