In Boston, we believe warmer is better. Our cravings for warmth are formed in the cold, dark winter nights when the prospect of summer seems impossibly remote. But with July temperatures reaching near 100° F, our winter dreams are becoming a summertime nightmare. Dangerous heat exposures in Boston and other cities across the US aren’t felt equally. Urban areas with less green space and more pavement can be up to 15 degrees hotter than other, greener places. These urban heat islands are much more likely to be poor, minority neighborhoods, and their origins can be traced straight back to redlining that began in the 1930s.
This summer, the disparate heat risk these communities face has piled onto the outsized harm that COVID-19 has already wrought upon them. The good news is that we can take actions that protect our most vulnerable urban neighbors and ourselves from COVID-19 and extreme heat.
What is heat-related illness?
Our ability to cool off has limits. When the heat is too strong, our bodies overheat. When that happens, we can get headaches and muscle cramps, and vomit. Severe overheating, when body temperature reaches 104° F or higher, can lead to heatstroke that can damage kidneys, brains, and muscles.
Even for people who are healthy, heat can be dangerous and cause heat-related illness. Outdoor workers, athletes (especially football players and young athletes), and women who are pregnant should be especially careful when it’s hot outside.
Who is at greater risk from high temperatures?
Heat can be a risk for those who are healthy, but it’s particularly risky for people who have existing health problems. It can even be lethal. Decades of research show that people die during heat waves, and that these deaths are not occurring among people who were likely to die soon anyway.
Many of us probably know someone who is at greater risk from too much heat. The elderly — particularly those with heart failure, kidney disease, and chronic lung disease — and the homeless are at high risk when temperatures soar. Less well known are the others who need to be vigilant when extreme heat hits, including parents of children with asthma and people with diabetes. Anyone taking medicines, such as diuretics, that can affect their body’s ability to sweat or hold onto water may also be more vulnerable.
How can you keep yourself and others safe during heat waves?
More than half the people in the US may have received some form of warning during our most recent heat wave. But research on these mass alerts shows they may not be as effective as we’d like. And now, with COVID-19, many people may understandably be less interested in going to cooling centers, which are often a mainstay of heat wave response plans. This makes actions you can take all the more important. You can keep yourself and others safe by taking these steps:
- Think about whether your health,