MANHATTAN, Kan. – Heat is weather’s sneaky killer.
“Most people don’t realize that their odds for a heat-related illness go up, the longer they’re exposed,” said Mary Knapp, state climatologist based at Kansas State University.
“That’s why the majority of deaths occur several days into a heat wave, rather than on Day 1,” she said.
“People also don’t realize how important nighttime temperatures can be in determining their risk.”
Risk factors. Beyond that, humidity, calm air and pollution can increase hot weather’s sneaky potential, said Knapp.
“In the past, the elderly in inner cities have been the nation’s most frequent victims – perhaps because they were afraid to open their windows or couldn’t afford air conditioning,” she said. “Their enclosed, stifling living conditions became more deadly with each hour and with each rise in temperature and humidity.
“Except for the time required, their situation wasn’t all that different from the one faced by children who’ve died in a locked car, where being enclosed can become lethal within minutes.”
Open windows and home fans can only help so much, the climatologist warned.
“Even when the humidity is low, temperatures in the high 90s can be life-threatening in a fan-cooled home. When the humidity is high, temperatures in the high 80s can be dangerous,” Knapp said. “Air movement may make you feel more comfortable then, but it may not keep you cool enough to be safe.”
Summer nights. When nighttime temperatures drop below 80 degrees, fans can lower the risk a bit, she added.
“What’s important is to use the fans to bring cool air in at night and to blow hot air out during the day,” the climatologist said. “Being in an air-conditioned environment will still be a greatly better choice, though – even if just for a few hours a day.”
When nighttime temperatures are around 80 F or higher, however, the danger in extended exposure to heat soars. Most at risk are the elderly, the very young, those who are ill, people involved in intense physical activity, and anyone who hasn’t gradually gotten used to the hotter temperatures.
. Downtown dilemma Inner cities can add to heat’s sneak attack by creating climate “islands,” Knapp said. Concrete, asphalt, stone and steel all absorb heat during the day and radiate that heat back into the air at night – thus raising the nighttime temperature.
“That’s one reason why successfully growing trees next to a city building or street can be so difficult,” she said.
In addition, tall buildings restrict breezes. Cars and industries emit pollution. And the makeup of a heat wave often includes what’s called an inversion layer, which traps and holds both heat and pollution close to the ground.
Be a little nosy. Knapp recommends that friends and relatives check on at-risk adults at least once a day through summer and twice a day during hot spells.
“Children, of course, need more frequent checks,” she said. “And everyone should remember to drink more than usual until cool weather arrives again.”
Warning signs. Knapp said early signs that heat risks are rising include:
* Dizziness, feeling faint.
* Going to the bathroom less than usual.
* Darker and/or more yellow urine.
* Labored breathing, sometime accompanied by a pounding heartbeat.
* Headache and/or painful muscle spasms.
* Nausea and/or excessive sweating.
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Weather’s ‘sneaky’ killer
Weather projections are pointing to a hotter-than-average summer. If you keep up with statistics, that’s scary.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – NOAA – says more Americans die from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes. And that’s just counting the direct causalities. We have no way of knowing how many have died of other causes that would not have been fatal under other conditions.
The National Center for Environmental Health puts the U.S. heat-related death toll for 1979-1999 (most recent figures) at 8,015.
That averages out to about 175 per year, but each year is different. In the heat wave of 1980 alone, more than 1,250 people died.
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