Bringing the Heat: How Rising Temperatures Affect Our Health

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As climate change continues to intensify, heat waves and extreme temperatures will be more common in our region, resulting in increased risks for heat-related illnesses.

By Kelly Morton,

Published June 13, 2024

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Contributors: Nobi Kennedy, Kelly Morton, Bamidele Osamika, Leah Ross, Mitch Singstock, and Savannah Sullivan
This piece is part of Green Umbrella’s 2024 PSA Campaign on climate health impacts, highlighting a recent report done with Scioto Analysis which was supported in part by a bi3, HealthPath, and Interact for Health Data for Equity Grant.

Another sunny summer scorcher! A good day for friends, baseball, and The Great American Ballpark, and a great day for Cincinnati Reds players looking to improve their at-bat stats: hot weather leads to more home runs. High heat leads to lower air density, allowing balls to fly farther, faster. Since 2010, over 500 home runs can be attributed to rising temperatures. 


While this makes for exciting baseball games, it also highlights the unexpected impacts of rising temperatures and our region’s vulnerability to heat-related threats. As temperatures soar, it’s crucial to take necessary precautions to protect yourself from possibly life-threatening, heat-related conditions, and imperative for our communities to make changes and choices that will mitigate future heat waves.

Heat: Going to Extremes

Days with an average temperature of 90°F and higher are considered “hot”, but it’s important to also consider humidity – high heat and humidity days are called “wet bulb” days. When humans get hot, the body sweats, and evaporation of sweat acts as a coolant. In places with higher relative humidity, perspiration is less able to evaporate, meaning that areas with higher temperatures and lower humidity can feel cooler than areas with lower temperatures and high humidity. To measure dangerous heat levels, the National Weather Services uses a heat index, which takes both actual temperature and relative humidity into consideration. 

Heat stress is the leading cause of weather-related deaths across the globe. Extreme heat exacerbates pre-existing conditions including heart disease, diabetes, asthma, mental illnesses, and more. Health issues triggered by heat need immediate attention as fatalities can happen rapidly: the same day or in the days following the emergency. Hospitalization is required if symptoms are severe or are affecting traditionally vulnerable populations, such as the sick, elderly, pregnant people, and children. 

While most know if they belong to a vulnerable population, extreme heat makes even healthy people vulnerable. During a heat wave, vulnerable populations include those taking certain medications (ADHD, antidepressants, blood pressure regulators, antihistamines), unborn children, athletes, young people, and outdoor workers (delivery drivers, farm workers, construction workers, mail carriers, etc). In 2023, one in 10 heat-related deaths were people younger than 35.

Heat-related illness is a broad term relating to the health effects that being in the heat can have on our body. These illnesses occur when the body is unable to cool itself effectively. This can result in various conditions that range from discomforting (cramping, heat rash, light sunburn) to immediately dangerous (dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke).

  • Heat cramps: Muscle pains or spasms that occur during activity in hot environments.
  • Heat rash: Skin irritation caused by sweat trapped in the skin, causing blisters and itching.
  • Sunburn: Inflamed, painful skin that feels hot to the touch caused by too much sun exposure.
  • Dehydration: When the body loses more fluid than it takes in, preventing normal body functions.
  • Heat exhaustion: Symptoms include heavy sweating, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and headache. If left untreated, it can progress to heat stroke.
  • Heat stroke: A severe condition characterized by a body temperature above 103°F, altered mental state, lack of sweating despite the heat, and potential unconsciousness. This is a medical emergency with a high-case fatality rate and requires immediate attention. 

Danger Zones

While Western and Southern regions typically have higher temperatures and/or heat indexes, traditionally cooler regions that experience heat waves can have more aggressive mortality rates. The Northeast and Midwest regions, unprepared for heat waves common in other regions, can be more vulnerable to physiological responses, lack of acclimation to changing elements, dramatic exposure levels, and slow community responses. 

In the middle of a heat wave, an obviously dangerous place to be is outside, exposed – areas with little greenspace or tree canopy, areas with more blacktop and paved surfaces. While many people can take refuge inside, others may not be able to due to their profession or living conditions: outdoor workers, athletes, and unhoused people are more at risk of heat-related illness. 

Even worse than being outside, one of the most dangerous places to be during a heat wave is inside a car. Even with the windows cracked open, interior temperatures can rise almost 20 degrees within the first 10 minutes. Anyone left inside a vehicle is at risk for serious heat-related illnesses or even death.

During heat waves, even staying indoors may not be enough of a respite. Up to 41% of schools may not have proper cooling or ventilation systems which cause early dismissal and cancellations. But sending children home may not be much better; older homes and buildings, lower income areas, and apartment buildings can be heat traps, collecting heat from outside with little or no ability to cool down due to building materials, poor infrastructure, or preventatively expensive cooling systems.

Historic Inequities Lead to Modern Disparities

Heat islands are developed areas that experience higher temperatures compared to outlying areas because of the concentration of built infrastructure. Buildings, roads, paved surfaces, and other structures absorb and amplify the sun’s heat more than areas with greenspace, trees, and bodies of water.

In the 1930’s, the federal government labeled “non-White neighborhoods as undesirable for real estate investment” in a practice known as “redlining”. Public and private lenders often withheld loans and other services from people in those areas, depriving residents of opportunities to grow their wealth and improve their communities. Although redlining has been illegal since 1968, as a result of this intentional historic divestment, today low income and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to heat risks because those neighborhoods are heat islands. In addition to overall increases in temperature, related negative effects of this disparity include higher utility bills and poorer overall air quality.

Turning Up the Heat: It’s Going to Get Worse

 In July 2023, Earth broke or tied its record for the hottest day on record – four days in a row. 2023 was the hottest year on record, but there is a strong chance that 2024 will be even hotter; every month in 2024 so far has been the hottest of those months in recorded history. Scientists say these record highs align with their expectations for climate change, and warn that more scorchers are coming.

The increase in extreme heat days is directly linked to climate change, driven by greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gasses – including but not limited to carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gasses – are called such because they function like glass in a greenhouse, trapping heat within the Earth’s atmosphere and increasing the temperature throughout the globe. While these gasses are naturally occurring, higher concentrations of these gasses, released into the atmosphere by human activities like burning fossil fuels, tip the scale and cause unnatural changes to the climate.

As climate change progresses, the Greater Cincinnati region is expected to experience a significant increase in the number of extremely hot days over the next few years. This year in Cincinnati, there are an anticipated 42 days of temperatures between 90-100°F and 14 days of temperatures above 100°F; in 30 years, the number of days above 100°F is expected to double. The likelihood of heat waves lasting 3 days or more is expected to increase as well: 47% this year to 85% in 30 years (30 years ago, it was 16%).

What You Can Do to Prepare for the Heat

To protect yourself and loved ones from heat-related illnesses, take proactive measures whether at home, work, or play:

  • Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water throughout the day, even if you do not feel thirsty, can ward off dehydration and keep the body cooler. Avoid beverages that dehydrate, such as alcohol and caffeine.
  • Wear appropriate clothing: Choose lightweight, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothing in breathable materials that allow the body to sweat and cool itself.
  • Limit outdoor activities whenever possible. If you have to be outside, have a plan for what to do and where to go for cooling breaks. Schedule outdoor activities like athletic practices and parties during cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or late evening.
  • Protect yourself from the sun’s heat: wide-brimmed hats, umbrellas, and sunscreen can prevent skin from absorbing too much sunlight. Handheld fans and water misters are helpful tools for staying cool on the go.
  • Use fans and air conditioning to keep living spaces cool; if you do not have effective or affordable air cooling systems in the home, take refuge in public places like libraries or malls.
  • Take cool showers or baths to lower your body temperature.
  • Rest often! Take frequent breaks if you are working outside or engaging in physical activity.
  • Check on vulnerable individuals: Ensure that elderly family members, children, and pets are protected from the heat.
  • Know the signs of heat-related illnesses listed earlier in this post. Recognizing these conditions can help save someone’s life. There are additional resources at the end of this post.

Creating a Heat-Resilient Region

In 2022, power from burning coal and natural gas provided 93% of Kentucky’s electricity, 88% of Ohio’s, and 85% of Indiana’s. As a region, focusing on using cleaner energy, especially in high-energy use buildings, will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to the rising temperatures. For example, the City of Cincinnati has a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2035. As part of these efforts, they recently created one of the largest city-established solar array projects in the nation to provide clean energy for the city and its residents. The solar array will reduce the region’s carbon emissions by 158,000 tons annually and save the city an estimated $1.8M over the next 20 years. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Pollution Reduction Grant program, as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, is providing a historic amount of funding and opportunities for states, local governments, tribes, and territories to develop and implement ambitious plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Several entities in our region have submitted Priority Climate Action Plans to cut pollution using IRA funding, including proposals from the state governments of Indiana and Ohio (for a full list of our region’s applicants, scroll down to the Learn More section of this post). Taking advantage of resources like this are great ways to get emissions reduction going in our region.

Developing new greenspace and increasing existing greenspaces in urban areas will not only offset emissions, but also help cool down those communities. Urban forests have temperatures that are on average 2.9°F lower than unforested urban areas. Trees, shrubs, and other vegetation reduce surface and air temperature, helping to avoid the heat island effect. To truly minimize heat islands and reduce the danger of extreme heat for all, it is imperative to focus greenspace development efforts on historically marginalized communities, such as those targeted by redlining programs in the past. Possibilities for greenspace development include planting trees, installing rooftop gardens, maintaining community parks, and converting unused lots into new greenspaces like urban gardens, mini-forests, or pocket parks

Staying Cool, Together

As we transition into clean energy and green infrastructures, incorporating the principles of environmental justice and investing in communities with the fewest resources is paramount in future climate work to alleviate unjust burdens on our most harmed communities. 

Together, through informed actions and collective effort, we can build a more resilient and equitable region that is prepared to face the impacts of rising temperatures. Let’s prioritize both immediate safety measures and long-term solutions to protect our community and environment.

Learn More

Webinar: Climate Change, Heat Islands, and Health Outcomes in Greater Cincinnati

Watch the recording of the fourth installment of the Climate Health Public Service Announcement Webinar Series, Climate Change, Heat Islands, and Health Outcomes in Greater Cincinnati, on YouTube. Our guest speaker is Vivek Shanda, PhD and Professor at Portland State University’s Noah A. Toulan School of Urban Studies & Planning.


Priority Climate Action Plans in our region

Priority Climate Action Plans submitted to the EPA’s Climate Pollution Reduction Grant program from our region (click on the entity to see plans):

Resources

Infographics – download and share!

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