The Climate Crisis: Extreme Heat and Health

Very hot days—which are only getting worse due to climate change—are harming the health of residents across the country.

This is a transcript of the video.

Kathie Cox, public health educator, Scotland County Health Department, Laurinburg, North Carolina: The thought of heat exhaustion never crossed my mind, so what surprised me was how quickly the symptoms came on me.

So it was a typical workday, and after work, I facilitate an exercise program. So, of course, after you're exercising, you're kind of hot and sweaty, and I knew that when I got home, I wanted to walk my dog while I was already hot.

I felt OK, and I thought to myself, Well, I'm going to mow my grass. So I mow the front yard, and I was definitely feeling overheated, but I thought that I would just go ahead and finish mowing the backyard.

So after mowing a few rows, I realized I was not feeling very well, and I kept thinking, I can finish this, but after a couple of more rows, I was in trouble. I was getting cramps. I was feeling faint.

So I finished mowing around eight o'clock in the evening, but by 10 PM is when I called my daughter. I said, I need some help.

Newscasters: Impacting all of us today, the extreme heat.

Oh yeah, too hot to be outside for extended periods of time.

Another hot day tomorrow.

If we hit 96 at RDU, that would be a record.

The big story is this big old 96.

Candace Cahoon, program coordinator, pediatric asthma program, Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital, Ahoskie, North Carolina: When we have extremely hot days, we do see a larger amount of children dealing with asthma exacerbations.

Recently, I've been case-managing an eight-year-old little boy whose main trigger is the heat. One of the main issues for him is that he cannot go outside. This year, in North Carolina, early May was extremely hot, to the point that he was using his rescue medicine every day prior to going outside and trying to play. Another issue he sees is that he's not able to sleep in his own bed at night, because they do not have an air conditioner upstairs.

Vijay Limaye, science fellow, Science Center, NRDC: We know that extremely hot days aren't just an inconvenience; they actually kill people.

We've seen a lot of increase in heat stroke and heat exhaustion on extremely hot days, but high temperatures are also linked to other health problems, especially in people who have heart disease, lung ailments, or kidney problems.

Hotter temperatures also promote the formation of air pollution, or ground-level smog, in the air that we breathe, so it's this double whammy of health effects out there, especially in the summer. That's a big problem, because we know that there are more than 25 million Americans living with asthma. Those folks are especially vulnerable on the hot days that we see air pollution levels rise.

Right now, North Carolina experiences about 10 dangerously hot days each year. If we look into the future, in 2050, the state could experience about 60 dangerously hot days every year.

Really hot days can be a big problem for all sorts of people. People working outside, who have no choice whether to be exposed or not but have to show up to work but also people just working in their yards, who might be vulnerable to heat exhaustion.

So if we take a step back from North Carolina, we know that there are really monumental impacts across the country. About 1,300 people die each year from extreme heat exposure, and more than 65,000 Americans have to go to the emergency room each year due to health problems from extreme heat exposure.

Cox: We get reports in about the number of emergency department visits due to heat-related illness, and so when we look at those trends, those numbers getting higher and higher, it's alarming.

Cahoon: So back in May, we did see an increase in call volume from our school nurses concerned about patients. We did a lot of school visits, more so than usual, and I honestly gave a lot more rescue medication treatments this May than I have in the past.

Limaye: All of that medical care is enormously expensive, and that's because we're not just talking about emergency room visits but also hospital admissions and lost wages while people are having to deal with their immediate health problems.

Cox: After I had heat exhaustion, it just became real for me. As a health educator, I knew better, and I just was determined to be hard-headed that day, and I want others to know, it can happen to them.

Limaye: The science tells us that climate change is expected to increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves in the U.S. and around the world.

Thankfully, we're not stuck with this worst-case scenario of what our future looks like. If we move aggressively toward cleaner energy sources, we can limit the damage posed by climate change and also save people from the health risks posed by extreme heat.

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