Much of America continues to swelter above the 100°F mark today, especially Texas.
In fact, our friends and family in Texas and Oklahoma are suffering through a history-making summer in two ways no one wants to see: record-breaking drought, and for many places the hottest July on record, since record-keeping began in the time of cattle drives in 1895.
The effects of drought extend far beyond soil moisture and water levels. Quality of life suffers too, as Richard Parker eloquently describes writing from Wimberley, Texas. Coupled with the extreme, long-standing drought, this more intense heat is crippling, it’s exhausting to people, animals, and ecosystems.
If you think, “poor Oklahoma & Texas, but that’s not where I live” – PBS has a great site(http://www.pbs.org/newshour/widgets/temp-records/) that describes where more than 4,200 high temperature records across the US have been broken so far this summer, and you can see how your local temperatures stack up.
Besides heat-related illnesses (rash, cramps, exhaustion, fainting, and truly life-threatening heat stroke), which most of us have probably heard about, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has websites to help people prepare for extreme heat.
Some other less apparent ways that heat harms people’s health include:
- Millions more cases of painful kidney stones in the US by 2050, as temperatures rise with climate change, increasing dehydration and risk of stone formation. An estimated 1.6-2.2 million more cases are projected, with over $1 billion in additional healthcare costs annually. If you’ve ever had a kidney stone, or live with someone who has, this is a horrible prognosis; children are now starting to get kidney stones.
- Migraine headaches have been linked to extreme heat. One hospital study of over 7,000 cases found that, for headaches so severe that patients were admitted to the ER, there was a 7.5% rise in migraines for every 9°F (5°C) increase in temperature on the preceding day.
- Other groups at risk from extreme heat include: diabetics; the obese; multiple sclerosis patients; people taking a variety of common medications including antihistamines, some antidepressants, diuretics, laxatives – in other words, tens of millions of Americans.
- High ambient temperature has been associated with an increased risk of pre-term births.
- Extreme heat poses risks to the health and well-being of people with mental illnesses.
- Remember that even healthy young athletes need to protect themselves during heat waves.
- The fierce heat has damaged water infrastructure, and burst critical pipelines just when customers across the drought-stricken South and West need precious water the most.
- Even nuclear power plants have been crippled by the blistering heat this summer: the Brown’s Ferry nuke plant had to run at 50% power in early August, because the Tennessee River water temperature was already 90°F --too hot to receive any more manmade heat.
Another distressing side of the Summer of 2011 is, at night there’s been less natural cooling relief. Nighttime low temperatures in many Texas & Oklahoma locations have stayed up close to 90°F, running as much as 20°F above local averages. According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) there have already been over 6,000 minimum temperature records broken around the nation.
This is truly bad news for the most heat-vulnerable: young children, older people, people with heart or lung illnesses (since those two systems help regulate body temperature), and economically disadvantaged families who might not be able to afford air conditioning.
- The proportion of people age 65 years and over is now growing at the fastest in a century (40 million now in the US, rising to 72 million by 2030).
- There are more Americans living in poverty now since the 1960s.
- The number of children who fell into poverty between 2008 and 2009 was the largest single-year increase ever recorded.
All three of these groups are especially heat-vulnerable. And it’s getting hotter.
This extreme heat is going to get worse. NRDC just released a new webtool, Climate Change Threatens Health (www.nrdc.org/climatemaps). Our webpages let you zoom in on all 50 states, explore 5 types of health threats– extreme heat, along with drought, flooding, air pollution, and infectious disease -- and read how climate change stands to increase those health vulnerabilities where you live. Distressingly, NRDC’s analysis shows that for each of these five threats, the majority of most-vulnerable states do not have climate-health preparedness plans to help communities respond to those risks.
No one should despair. There’s a lot we can do to protect our families from climate-health threats. NRDC’s webpages offer lots of ideas for climate-health preparedness. Cities, some states, and a number of government agencies are taking climate change very seriously, readying systems to help communities adapt and prepare. This summer, I’ve been to three terrific climate-health-adaptation workshops, two of them right here in New York City, one of the places developing programs to meet the public health challenges of climate change as part of CDC’s “Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative”, along with nine other states and cities.
And we don’t have to leave these kinds of parboiled summers to our children as their inheritance.
Climate change is caused by increased levels of carbon pollution. Our webpages help illustrate the dangers of congressional efforts to dismantle the Clean Air Act. That law is what aims to limit carbon pollution and maintain public health protections.
We can take steps to limit the rising tide of climate change vulnerabilities in our own backyards. It’s time that we start connecting the dots between climate change & our health, and make climate-health preparedness a personal, national priority.
We also need to begin to think about what more days of ill health mean in health care dollars. This is something NRDC has been thinking about a lot, because those health-related costs almost never get included in estimates of how climate change harms society. Estimating the damage costs from storms, floods, heat waves and hurricanes to homes and businesses, hospitals and schools, sewage treatment plants and bridges, as well as losses of food crops and clean water supplies, is totally essential. But what about “we, the people” – what about the illnesses and premature death toll from heat waves and other extreme events? Shouldn't those be counted, too, when we calculate the true costs of climate change?