Extreme heat is normally the deadliest type of weather in the United States, but this summer has been particularly bad so far. There were more than 230 heat-related deaths reported in Oregon and Washington during the late June heat dome, and that count is expected to rise. Arizona’s Maricopa County is on track to beat the grim annual record it set in 2020 for 323 heat deaths. And as the data snapshot from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows below, heat-related illnesses drove thousands of people to emergency rooms in just the last week of June, even in regions that saw near-normal average temperatures.
In response to these tragic losses and the fact that fossil fuel pollution is making heat waves longer, stronger, and more frequent, U.S. Senators Markey (D-MA), Padilla (D-CA), Booker (D-NJ), and Representative Crist (D-FL) yesterday reintroduced the Preventing HEAT Illness and Deaths Act. The legislation aims to protect our health from heat by:
- Formalizing and expanding the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS). NIHHIS, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and CDC formed in 2015, serves to integrate the research, data, tools, and working relationships needed by state and local decision makers to protect their residents from heat. The HEAT Act mandates the continued work of NIHHIS and ensures it has dedicated funding.
- Filling key information gaps. We already know enough about heat’s health threats to aggressively cut climate-warming pollution and start preparing our communities for the heat emergencies of today and the future. However, important questions remain, such as how to best calculate the health costs of heat waves and the health benefits of climate adaptation projects. The new legislation directs NIHHIS to identify policy and research gaps standing in the way of more effective heat readiness and response, along with recommendations to address those gaps.
- Getting money into the hands of communities that need it most. One of the most important elements of the Preventing HEAT Illness and Deaths Act is a new financial assistance program, which would provide $100 million to community organizations, local governments, and other state, local, and tribal entities for heat resilience projects such as cool roofs, high-efficiency air conditioning, and early heat warning systems. At least 40 percent of the funds would be directed to communities of color and low-income communities, which study after study after study show are more exposed to extreme heat and more likely to experience heat-related health harms.
It’s not surprising that officials in the Pacific Northwest were unprepared for the June heat dome given the event’s breathtaking severity and, as meteorologist Dr. Marshall Shepherd put it, society’s “'meh' attitude towards extreme heat.”
But if we learn nothing else from that tragic event, it’s this: We can’t keep planning for the events of the past, or conditions just a little outside the norm. Saving lives in the face of longer, stronger, and more frequent heat waves will require a major shift in how we view the threat of heat and how we respond to it. The Preventing HEAT Illness and Deaths Act of 2021 is a step in the right direction to a more heat-aware and heat-ready nation.