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Heat poses hidden danger

Excessive heat continued this week for parts of the U.S. as summer kicked into high gear.


"When news media talks about it and city government talks about it and takes action, then I think that definitely makes a difference."

—Al Cope

Excessive heat continued this week for parts of the U.S. as summer kicked into high gear.

In Chicago, while the heat has yet to prompt a National Weather Service heat advisory, several days of 90-plus-degrees temperatures prompted the Department of Human Services to open eight cooling centers for people who lack air conditioning in their residences.

The heat has also brought on Ozone Action Days from the city. Officials are also encouraging people to use public transportation and not mow their lawns or use other gasoline-powered equipment. They are also advising those with respiratory illnesses to stay inside.

Chicago's heat is expected to decrease somewhat this weekend.

Elsewhere, the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat watch for the greater Phoenix area in Arizona as temperatures are expected to soar to 115 degrees Thursday.

Extreme heat is a very deadly weather condition, killing an average of 237 people each year, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). The NWS also reports that excessive heat killed more people per year from 1994 to 2003 than floods, lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes, winter storms and extreme cold.

“In general, heat is sort of an unadvertised danger compared to other weather-related things like tornadoes or lightning,” said Al Cope, science and operations officer at the NWS office in Mt. Holly, New Jersey.

“It’s kind of stealthy and doesn’t make a big splash – it’s a silent killer.”

Heat advisories and warnings from the NWS popped across much of the East Coast and Midwest this past week, an effort from a system the NWS decided was necessary to help warn the public of the dangers of excessive heat.

The Heat/Health Watch Warning System (HHWWS) originally started in Philadelphia after the devastating 1993 heat wave which killed more than 100 people. The local NWS office would let the city know when excessive heat was expected. The city would then enact its own public education and mitigation program to make sure residents knew of the dangers and checked on those who were elderly or living alone.

In January of this year, the NWS announced plans to expand the HHWWS from the current 16 cities to each municipality with a population exceeding 500,000.

“More than anyone else, (extreme heat) affects the elderly and the very young, along with people who live alone and people who live in poorer areas of the city where they might live in a building with no air conditioning, but are hesitant to open windows due to crime,” explained Cope. “They are most at risk.”

Cope knows the system works and greatly decreases the heat wave death toll in cities. He pointed out that after Chicago’s 1995 heat wave where more than 700 people died, the city enacted a warning system. The city experienced another heat wave several years later, but with the help of their warning system – the death toll was significantly lower.

“When news media talks about it and city government talks about it and takes action, then I think that definitely makes a difference,” said Cope.

Heat does not just have severe effects on humans, either. The Humane Society of the United States is also reminding pet owners about the effects of excessive heat on animals. The agency's tips include making sure your pet has plenty of water, proper protection from the sun and heat, and that owners do not exercise the pets during the hottest parts of the day.

For all of the agencies, educating the public the first step in prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control’s Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness

- Drink more fluids (nonalcoholic), regardless of your activity level. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Warning: If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask him how much you should drink while the weather is hot.

- Don’t drink liquids that contain caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar–these actually cause you to lose more body fluid. Also, avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.

- Stay indoors and, if at all possible, stay in an air-conditioned place. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library–even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler when you go back into the heat. Call your local health department to see if there are any heat-relief shelters in your area.

- Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, fans will not prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath, or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off.

- Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

Related Topics:

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Northeast U.S. bakes in heatwave

More links on Heat Wave


Related Links:

Centers for Disease Control Extreme Heat Web site

National Weather Service Heat Safety Web site

The Humane Society of the United States' Summer Pet Safety Tips

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