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Western heat wave threatens health in vulnerable communities

PHOENIX — Extreme temperatures like those blistering the American West this week isn’t just annoying; they’re deadly. This week’s record-breaking temperatures are a weather emergency, scientists and health care experts say, with heat responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than all other natural disasters combined. With more frequent and intense heat waves likely because of climate change and the worst drought in modern history, they say communities must better protect the vulnerable, like homeless people and those who live in ethnically and racially diverse low-income neighborhoods.

“This heat has an important effect on people and their health,” said Dr. Suganya Karuppana, chief medical director at the Valle del Sol community health clinics in Arizona.

Scientists and doctors said that people, plants, and animals need cooler temperatures at night to recover from high heat stress. But with overnight temperatures in the 90s, that’s not happening.

Karuppana noted that many people she sees may have no car and take public transportation in the Phoenix heat, walking through neighborhoods with few trees and waiting at bus and light rail stops with no or slight shade. Some people live in poorly ventilated mobile homes or without air conditioning. Or they may work outside in the sun as construction workers or landscapers. Phoenix has been baking in temperatures above 115 degrees (46 Celsius) all week. The high Friday hit a record 117 degrees (47 Celsius) after breaking another Thursday at 118 degrees (48 Celsius). Daily records also were set this week in places across the U.S. West, such as Nevada and California, including 128 degrees (53 Celsius) in Death Valley on Thursday.

Those vulnerable to high temperatures include the very young, the very old, and people with heart or kidney disease, ailments that disproportionately affect communities of color. We are activated for Phoenix and monitoring it closely,” said Nicolette Louissaint, executive director of the Washington nonprofit Healthcare Ready, which was founded after Hurricane Katrina to help communities deal with natural disasters. Louissaint said her organization has supported heat emergencies by funding cooling centers that offer bottled water and shade or arranging transportation for older people without cars who need dialysis or heart checkups.

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