How to Find Relief During Summer Heat Waves in the City

Extreme heat is already a public health threat—now, COVID-19 may make that impact worse. Here are some quick tips and long-term strategies to help keep you and your neighbors cool.

Credit: Alexander Spacher/NRDC

This summer already looks—and feels—very different from the last. For some, it will be spent largely indoors, where air-conditioning may be limited or nonexistent. The usual options for outside heat relief (pools, beaches, or spray parks, for example) may be off the table.

Residents of cities will be especially at risk to the impacts of extreme heat, partly because of the urban heat island effect, which intensifies climate change–fueled warming via tall buildings that block air flow and heat-absorbing surfaces like pavement. Often, the same communities most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the ones most at risk from extreme heat, including low-income communities, communities of color, the elderly, and those with preexisting medical conditions.

But there are ways to mitigate the risks. Here are some strategies for staying cool indoors, while helping build a cooler community for your neighbors too.

Eat for the heat.

In an already sweltering home, turning on an additional source of heat can make the problem that much worse. Opt for light summer meals that don’t require any cooking in the oven or on the stove, such as salads, fresh fruits, and sandwiches. Both the kinds and amount of food you eat can also impact how much heat your body generates. Digestion is one of our body’s most energy-intensive activities—and a belly too full of food revs up your internal engines, producing even more heat. For some people, sugary foods or stimulants like caffeine and alcohol can also affect the body's internal temperature regulation. To narrow down your own triggers, it may help to monitor your body’s reactions after eating and drinking.

Keep water close by.

If you’re dehydrated, you’re more likely to have symptoms of heat stress. During the hottest days of summer, we can often underestimate how much water we need to drink. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends drinking water before you ever get thirsty. Apply damp washcloths to places like your neck and forehead to cool down quickly. And while this topic is still debated, some experts argue that warm showers (with temperatures kept to around 91 degrees) can be more effective than cold ones at reducing your core temperature, rather than simply cooling down your skin and offering short-term relief.

Monitor your health—and check in on your neighbors too.

More than 65,000 people, on average, end up in emergency rooms each summer due to heat-related illness. Hotter temperatures promote the formation of air pollution, or ground-level smog, in the air that we breathe, and exacerbate health issues for people with asthma as well as heart disease, kidney problems, or other lung ailments. Whether or not you’re in a high-risk category, it’s important to pay attention to the warning signs of heat illness: dizziness, paleness, weakness, nausea, or a rapid pulse. Be mindful of escalating from heat exhaustion to a more serious state like heat stroke, which is often indicated by dry skin instead of heavy sweating. Set up a system for checking on any friends, family, or neighbors whom you’re concerned about—even if just by phone—when the mercury is rising.

Make some simple fixes to keep the cool air in—and the hot air out.

The average U.S. house has enough gaps around places like door frames and windows to equal a 3-by-3-foot hole in the wall—making it an uphill battle for your air conditioner. The U.S. Department of Energy has a handy checklist of leak-prone areas to help you determine where to caulk and weather-strip. When heat is at its peak—typically around 3 p.m.—keep your blinds and shades closed, to avoid turning your home into a greenhouse.

Optimize your fan and window use.

While they may not make the air physically cooler, fans help your body displace heat more quickly and can make rooms feel up to 4 degrees Fahrenheit cooler while using a fraction of the energy of an AC unit. To make ceiling fans more effective, run them counterclockwise to pull the cooler air up from the floor and down toward you. Rule of thumb: If it’s hotter outside than inside, like in the middle of the day, keep your windows closed. If it’s hotter indoors, like in the evening, open windows up and point a fan toward them to move the hot air out.

Review cooling resources available through your local department of public health.

If you don’t have an AC unit because of prohibitive costs, check with local authorities to determine what assistance may be available in your area. New York City, for example, is offering up more than 74,000 air conditioners to low-income seniors and New York City Housing Authority residents in order to tackle extreme heat, especially for vulnerable populations during COVID-19. During periods of extreme heat, it also offers emergency cooling centers, as does Los Angeles, in compliance with physical distancing criteria. Like New York and Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia, plans to block off streets in heat-vulnerable neighborhoods to allow residents to safely enjoy cooler evenings outdoors. Other cities may also provide subsidized or free air conditioners or window box fans to members of the public who meet certain qualifications.

Take a socially distanced stroll.

Leafy public parks offer a respite from the glaring sun, as trees and vegetation reduce the urban heat island effect. However, access to these spaces is inequitable and disparities often fall along racial lines. You can help advocate for the communities most in need of heat relief, by supporting local initiatives that improve funding for green spaces in park-poor communities or by urging your representatives to start one.

Support local green energy initiatives, like community solar.

As cities seek to cut the carbon emissions fueling global climate change (and resulting in hotter weather), many community groups are advocating for climate justice too. That fight goes far beyond installing solar panels on homes in vulnerable neighborhoods, notes Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an organization that advocates for the residents of northern Manhattan.

“It also asks, what does it mean to create a pathway to jobs in the green economy?” he says. “We’re not just saying, come put these solar panels up here in northern Manhattan, but really taking people from the community and training them on these solar installations.” When members of the community are installing panels on their own roofs, he adds, “there’s a greater level of democratic control over a process from which our communities are usually left out.” WE ACT also takes trainees from its solar installation program, in partnership with Solar One, and connects them with the Green Group Cooperative to help residents become cooperative owners of their own solar-installation business. Some have called this “the Green New Deal in real life.”

Community solar initiatives like these are expanding throughout the nation. To find opportunities to participate in one in your state, check out resources compiled by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Solstice.

Encourage local leaders to take up heat action plans.

“People have to become engaged in the process of transforming policy,” Corbin-Mark says. “We need broader systemic change around policies that really deal with keeping people cool and safe.” While that may look different in each city depending on its density, vulnerable populations, and climate, WE ACT offers up strategies, including publicly funded green-roof programs, vouchers for those who can’t afford air conditioners, energy efficiency policies to make buildings retain cold air more easily, and public cooling centers with longer hours and clearer signage.

You can help advocate for policies by voting for elected officials who take extreme heat as seriously as extreme cold in the winter—and see it as an extension of climate adaptation. “One of the earliest manifest challenges that we experience from the climate crisis are these extreme-heat events,” Corbin-Mark says. And urban communities are on the frontlines.

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