Summer has only just officially started, and it is already a scorcher. Many areas of the country are facing record-breaking heat, which is putting the health of millions of Americans at risk.
Unfortunately, this trend of more intense and frequent heatwaves isn’t just a coincidence. According to the Lancet Medical Journal, climate change is increasing the frequency, duration, and intensity of heatwaves. In 2020, adults over the age of 65 in the U.S. experienced a total of nearly 300 million more days of heatwave exposure compared to the 1986-2005 average baseline, making it the second highest year of exposure recorded since 1986. According to the US Global Change Research Program's Climate and Health Assessment, climate change could cause tens of thousands of premature heat-related deaths each summer by the end of the century.
"The global rise in temperature is putting us all at risk, regardless of where we live," said Dr. Brian Christman, medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association.
Here's what you need to know about heat waves and how to protect yourself from this increasing threat:
1. Heat makes air pollution worse.
Ground-level ozone pollution, often called smog, is a common threat during the hot summer months. Ozone develops in the atmosphere from gases that come out of tailpipes, smokestacks and many other sources. When these gases come in contact with sunlight, they react and form ozone. Ozone is one of the most dangerous pollutants in the United States and is more likely to form in hot, stagnant air. So, more heat waves = more ozone pollution and more danger to your health. Ozone aggressively attacks lung tissue by reacting chemically with it and acts like a sunburn on the lungs. It can cause immediate breathing problems and lead to serious health effects over time—even early death.
2. Understand your risk.
Many people may be surprised to learn that, according to the American Lung Association's "State of the Air" more than 4 in 10 Americans live in areas with dangerous levels of ozone or particle pollution. Though anyone who spends time outside where pollution levels are high is at risk, children, the elderly, pregnant people, and those with lung disease are particularly vulnerable. People who work and exercise outside are also at a higher risk from air pollution. And just because you aren't near sources of pollution like highways, smokestacks, and factories doesn't mean you aren't at risk, because air pollution can travel far distances. "Pollutants released from the top of urban smokestacks can be picked up by prevailing winds and travel long distances before affecting people, even in rural areas. The smoke from the catastrophic rural wildfires can also distribute over hundreds of miles affecting large numbers of us, even those who live in urban centers. So, you can see, all of us are at risk," said Dr. Christman.
3. Extreme heat can aggravate illness.
In addition to the health risks of pollution, extreme heat itself can take a toll on your body and lungs. Breathing in hot, humid air can exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD. "The heat increases metabolic demands, which might not be a problem for a conditioned, heat-adapted athlete, but could be deadly for someone with advanced heart or lung disease who is barely getting by," Dr. Christman commented. "Older patients tend to have less recognition of thirst and water depletion and may be taking medications that decrease awareness of thirst. On very hot days they can lose a lot of volume through perspiration which results in a fall in blood pressure, or even blacking out."
4. Know how to protect yourself from unhealthy air.
One of the easiest changes you can make to protect your family is to check the air quality forecasts in your community. Avoid exercising or working outdoors when the forecast warns unhealthy air (an orange level or higher) is expected. The Lung Association also has 10 Tips to Protect Yourself from Unhealthy Air to help you make some easy changes that may help guard against these deadly pollutants.
When the weather report says extreme heat is coming, Dr. Christman urges everyone to:
- Stay inside in the air conditioning during the hottest part of the day.
- Wear appropriate clothing (put away the wool flannel trousers and switch to shorts).
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Avoid excess intake of alcohol, which blunts awareness of thirst and induces fluid loss.
- Use fans to increase evaporative heat loss.
- Keep an eye on your elderly neighbors. They may need assistance in reaching medical care if the heat gets to them.
5. Take action to protect health from climate change.
As climate change continues to advance, it becomes harder and harder to clean up ozone pollution. To protect human health from the worst impacts, we need to act to address climate change and reduce ozone pollution. Among many other steps needed to address climate change, transitioning to zero-emission vehicles and electricity are critical steps.
Blog last updated: August 25, 2023