It has already been a hot summer in the Midwest. People with disabilities and the elderly need to be especially mindful of high heat and humidity, and how it makes them feel.
While everyone is susceptible to illnesses due to extreme heat, certain populations may be especially vulnerable to health effects including people with preexisting medical conditions, people with disabilities, the very young (less than 5 years old) and the elderly (older than 65). People who are overweight may also be more vulnerable to heat-related illness. Other factors that can increase the risk from extreme heat events include living alone (especially the elderly), having prolonged exposure to the sun (construction workers), consuming alcohol, living in an urban area (heat island effect), not having access to air conditioning and living in a top floor apartment.
Data indicates that Minnesota is getting hotter and more humid, which may increase the number of extreme heat events. Trends assessed by the State Climatology Office suggest that Minnesota’s average temperature is increasing and the number of days with a dew point temperature greater than or equal to 70°F may be increasing. People accustomed to Midwestern climates often begin to feel uncomfortable when the dew point temperature reaches between 65 and 69°F and most consider dew points above 75°F extremely uncomfortable or oppressive.
On July 19, 2011, the dew point temperature reached 82° in the Twin Cities. On that same day, the state record dew point temperature was reached in Moorhead with a dew point temperature of 88°F. The only other spot in the Western Hemisphere with a dew point temperature in the 80s that day was in the Amazon Jungle in South America.
Extreme heat events can cause a range of health problems from relatively minor health issues, such as a heat rash, to life-threatening conditions, such as heat stroke and ultimately death. Heat exhaustion is the most common heat-related illness. Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include dizziness, thirst, fatigue, headache, nausea, visual disturbances, weakness, anxiety, confusion and vomiting. Untreated heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, which can be fatal. Symptoms of heat stroke include an extremely high body temperature (above 103°F); red, hot, and dry skin; rapid breathing; racing heart rate; headache; nausea; confusion and unconsciousness.
Despite the fact that most heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, a significant number of people die and suffer from extreme heat events every year in the U.S., according to health officials. In anticipation of the hot weather, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) makes available its Minnesota Extreme Heat Toolkit to help local public health agencies better prepare for extreme heat events and to help inform the public about steps they can take to avoid heat-related illnesses.
From 1979 to 2003, more people in the U.S. died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined. “Extreme heat events do not typically make the news headlines compared to other extreme weather events and they do not leave a lasting trail of infrastructure damage that continuously reminds people of their impact,” said Kristin Raab, MDH climate change coordinator. “That is why extreme heat events have been called the silent killers.”
“Yet, almost all of the negative health outcomes from extreme heat can be prevented by ensuring that the public stays cool and hydrated during an extreme heat event,” Raab added.
The Extreme Heat Toolkit contains background information on Minnesota climate trends, public health concerns related to extreme heat and recommended steps to help prepare for and respond to extreme heat.
For additional information, see the MDH Climate Change website at www.health.state.mn.us/divs/climatechange/extremeheat.html or the MDH Office of Emergency Preparedness website at www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/emergency/natural/index.html While weather affects everyone, people who work outdoors are particularly at risk when the heat index soars. The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched its Summer Safety Campaign for workers, “Water. Rest. Shade,” on June 20, the first day of summer. OSHA has released a free application for mobile devices that enables workers and supervisors to monitor the heat index at their work sites. The app displays a risk level for workers based on the heat index, as well as reminders about protective measures that should be taken at that risk level. Available for Android-based platforms and the iPhone, the app can be downloaded in both English and Spanish by visiting http://s.dol.gov/RI.
OSHA also has a web page and printed materials on heat-related illnesses and how to prevent them, and what to do in case of emergency, at www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/index.html
Information for this article is from OSHA and theMinnesota Department of Health