Climate change — to those who indulge in counter-factual thinking and who hold anti-science beliefs — may be an abstraction and a mere theory. But weather extremes became a startling, real, and deadly health threat to tens of millions in a swath of the Pacific Northwest in this country and Canada.
Days of unrelenting, record-shattering heat have been blamed directly for at least 100 deaths, with hundreds more fatalities occurring during the historic torpor, the New York Times reported in a news article describing the toll in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia.
Surges in emergency departments
The soaring temperatures flooded hospital emergency departments with patients struggling with conditions blamed on or worsened by the heat. The case surge was an unwelcome development for health workers who have been overwhelmed for months dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
Justin Ryel, MD, an emergency medicine physician in the Seattle area, told the medical news site MedPage Today:
“Only about half of homes in Washington have air-conditioning, and from what I’ve seen that’s falling disproportionately on lower-income and elderly residents. A guy came in yesterday with a temperature of 105° and confusion. He was elderly and lived at home alone with no air-conditioning.”
The New York Times reported this of the health challenges Pacific Northwest residents faced:
“The casualties — in overheated cars, stifling apartments, older homes, workplaces, homeless encampments — reflect the particular dangers of extreme heat and the potential for devastation as climate change dramatically amplifies normal temperature fluctuations. In Washington and Oregon alone, authorities have attributed at least 90 deaths to the sustained spike in temperatures. The chief coroner of British Columbia said at least 486 sudden deaths were reported in the province [in a] five-day period in which 165 such deaths are typically reported.”
Weather extremes pose grave risks to vulnerable groups, the newspaper emphasized:
“Because global warming has raised baseline temperatures by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, heat waves like the one in the Pacific Northwest are now likely to be hotter than those recorded in past centuries. Over the past 30 years, extreme heat has led to more deaths in the United States than other extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and floods, although estimates for the number of heat-related deaths have varied. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 505 heat-related deaths in the United States in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. But the real numbers could be much higher. Another study, which looked at excess deaths in the country’s 297 most populous counties, found that approximately 5,600 deaths could be attributable to heat each year.”
Heat safety measures
Experts say it is important in high temperatures to stay hydrated and avoid prolonged exposure to the sun. Wear light colors and fabrics that breathe. Hats can be helpful. Know that humidity levels can increase not only individuals’ discomfort but also diminish their bodies’ natural cooling systems, notably perspiring (and temperature-reduction via evaporation). The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of warning signs and preventive measures worth heeding, notably for the most severe of the heat-related conditions (see chart above).
The heat can be problematic when the vulnerable are left alone for periods in baking conditions. Grownups must take great care to ensure that children (and animals too) aren’t locked in hot cars. Friends and loved ones should check in during heat waves with older relatives, as well those who may be ill, injured, or disabled.
The District of Columbia and other governments in the region offer cooling centers for those in need, as well as providing emergency plans and best practices to cope with periods in which the thermometers soar. The area around the nation’s capital typically experiences its most scorching weather in July, though D.C.’s August can sizzle and the area had unusual weather already, with a possible tornado ripping through.
Weather forecasters, as well as health and civil defense experts, have urged people to plan and prepare for climate-related calamities that could put their health and well-being at risk. Homeowners may want to double-check cooling and heating systems to ensure their optimal function before the demand for them peaks. Back-up power supplies may be worth considering, especially for those who require electric-powered medical equipment.
Savvy consumers educate themselves about emergency food and water supplies, as well as protecting the safety and hygiene of foodstuffs that may need attention if refrigeration fails or is curtailed during weather emergencies. With users’ reliance now simply off the hook with cell phones and other electronic devices, don’t forget not only to keep gadgets charged but also to keep powered battery or other backups.
High heat also can mean atrocious air quality, so patients with respiratory conditions and vulnerabilities may wish to talk in advance with their doctors and to keep on hand medications or treatments they may require.
By the way, who has not made their needed emergency preparations for hurricanes and the drenching storms they also can unleash?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, excellent, and efficient medical care. This has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.
With all the other health risks out there, it is daunting to add climate challenges into the mix, especially because they seem so big, difficult, and intractable. We can’t be ostriches and stick our heads in the sand, however. We need to recognize — and not deny — humanity-caused, factually affirmed environmental harms, and to take the step-by-step actions to deal with these. This includes seeing and understanding how extremes, including in heat and cold, compromise our health. We have much work to do to safeguard our planet, ourselves, and our health.