June 29, 2010

Heat Waves Hit Some of Us Harder

So we’re breaking records, and no one is happy about it. June 23rd marked the 12th day in 2010 the mercury rose into the 90s; to put that in perspective, 2009 featured 12 above-90 days total . Our unseasonably warm spring, with an average temperature of 66.7 degrees, was the warmest in recorded District history, so it comes as no surprise that even with the occasional breeze, the soaring heat index now reaches 100 degrees or more even in the shade.

At BFC, we are blessed with air conditioning and jobs that bring us in from the heat, but now more than ever is a good time to remember our clients and other vulnerable residents of D.C. are not so lucky. Heat vulnerability entails risk of effects that range “from heat rash and sunburn to more complicated illnesses such as heat cramps, fainting and heat exhaustion.” In severe cases, prolonged exposure can result in heat stroke and even death. Thus far, 3 deaths have been reported in the D.C. metro area--all in Maryland.

Recent studies have revealed people in one or more of the following categories are particularly “heat vulnerable”:

  • senior citizens
  • people of color
  • those who live alone
  • those below the poverty line
  • those do not have a high school diploma
  • those who have limited access to green space
  • those who suffer from diabetes

    While some of the cited risk factors may seem obviously related to heat, factors like ethnicity, income and education highlight the link between economic security and actual physical security. In conditions like these, people are advised to stay in an air conditioned environment and avoiding strenuous labor--but for many of our clients, these are not available options.

    So what do our clients do to beat the heat? I asked around and this is the advice these savvy D.C. natives shared:
    • Stay at home: Air conditioning or no air conditioning, clients say one of the best ways to stay cool is to stay inside, out of the sun and (if possible) in front of a fan.
    • Keep travel to a minimum: One client says he travels to school and back and that’s it
    • Seek shelters: Clients suggested those without air conditioning units should look for relief in senior citizen shelters designated specifically for incidents of heat-related illness and discomfort. The city also offers Cooling Centers for the elderly, and homeless, as well as general facilities open between 12-6pm on weekdays.
    • Free ride: Well, the bus is not free, but the air conditioning on the bus certainly is an added bonus. Although shopping malls and movie theaters might not be accessible for our clients, public transportation often is. One man said, “I just get on the bus and ride for as long as I can. That’s how you stay cool!”
    • Freeze-and-go: One mother recommends bottles of ice. Freezing water bottles before leaving the house is a good way to stay hydrated and make it last.
    • Water, water everywhere: The most popular suggestions always seemed to include some form of H2O. For kids, pools are the most popular. One woman prefers the convenience of her own home, and says an outdoor hose is a great way to cool off in a hurry. At the very least, treat yourselves to some cold showers to lower your body temperature and ward off heat-related illness.

      No matter what their strategy is, our clients are doing their best to stay cool but admit that the constraints of labor-intensive jobs or lack of cooling options can be a hindrance.

      One way to help is by looking out for those around you. Here are some of the most common heat-related illnesses and symptoms to be on the look out for:

      1. Heat Rash: Heat rash can occur at any age but is most common in young children. Heat rash looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters.
      2. Heat cramps: A person who has been exercising or participating in other types of strenuous activity in the heat may develop painful muscle spasms in the arms, legs, or abdomen referred to as heat cramps. The body temperature is usually normal, and the skin will feel moist and cool, but sweaty.
      3. Heat syncope: Someone who experiences heat syncope (fainting) will experience the sudden onset of dizziness or fainting after exposure to high temperatures, particularly after exercising in the heat. As with heat cramps, the skin is pale and sweaty but remains cool. The pulse may be weakened, and the heart rate is usually rapid. Body temperature is normal.
      4. Heat exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is a warning that the body is getting too hot. Those most prone to heat exhaustion include elderly people, people with high blood pressure, and people working or exercising in a hot environment. A person with heat exhaustion may be thirsty, giddy, weak, uncoordinated, nauseous, and sweating profusely. As with heat syncope and heat cramps, the body temperature is usually normal in heat exhaustion. The heart rate (pulse rate) is normal or elevated. The skin is usually cold and clammy.
      5. Heat stroke: Heat stroke is a serious, life-threatening condition that occurs when the body loses its ability to control its temperature. Victims of heat stroke almost always die, so immediate medical attention is essential when problems first begin. In heat stroke, a person develops a fever that rapidly rises to dangerous levels within minutes. Other symptoms and signs of heat stroke may include confusion, combativeness, bizarre behavior, feeling faint, staggering, strong rapid pulse, dry flushed skin, and lack of sweating. Delirium or coma can also result from heat stroke.

        If you suspect someone suffers from any of the above heat-related illnesses, move that person to a shady area and call 911 immediately. Even minor symptoms could be precursors to a more serious illness. While waiting for emergency relief, use any available form of cold water to cool the victim, including a cold shower, bath or hose.

        Stay tuned for more developments on the heat and what you (and BFC) can do to help! For now, stay cool!

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