Heat waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, flooding and other weather events can have direct and indirect effects on human health and the environment. Scientists look at historical weather patterns related to temperature, precipitation, wind, etc., and they use predictive models to study the dynamics of the weather and climate to forecast future patterns.
There is an important difference between "weather" and "climate". "Weather" is what happens in a specific place in the atmosphere on a given day. "Climate" refers to weather patterns over a period of time. As meteorologists say, "climate is what you expect, weather is what you get."
Scientific data shows that the Earth's climate is changing and is currently in a warming trend. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the average global temperature has increased about 1.4º Fahrenheit (0.8º Celsius) since 1880.
How Does Heat Impact Health?
Heat affects humans in different ways depending on several factors. For instance, a person's age and pre-existing health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes may increase the risk of suffering from heat-related health illnesses. Certain medications may result in dehydration thus making individuals more susceptible to suffering from a heat-related illness.
Socio-economic factors such as the ability to afford air conditioning or adequate insulation can also impact vulnerability and may leave some residents at risk of exposure to extreme temperatures. People with limited resources are more likely to live in substandard housing which may expose them to higher levels of environmental hazards. They may also have limited access to health care and may not have the ability to receive medical attention when needed.
Heat can have a direct impact on human health such as a heat-related rash or life threatening heat stroke or an indirect impact such as a heat wave increasing the demand for electricity (which uses more fossil fuels) and can propel more airborne particles into the environment. This can make it harder for some people to breathe. Heat may also increase ground-level ozone concentrations which, in turn, may cause lung damage and increase the severity of asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has selected three indicators (or results from extreme heat events) for tracking by the Environmental Public Health Tracking (EPHT) program: heat-related emergency department visits, heat-related hospitalizations, and heat-related deaths.
By looking at these indicators over time, EPHT hopes to gain a better understanding of the possible health effects and risks from exposure to heat as it relates to specific groups of people. This will help in developing awareness and educational tools to better inform vulnerable communities.
Tracking and Mapping the Data
Use this interactive tool to choose cancer indicators and measures to generate maps, bar charts and trend lines.
Understanding how the data are collected, calculated, and interpreted.
How can I protect myself and family from heat related illness?
1. Know the environmental and personal risk factors.
A. Environmental risk factors include:
- High temperature and/or humidity (heat index)
- Direct exposure to the heat sources
- Limited air movement
- Type and duration of physical exertion.
B. Personal risk factors include:
- Age, weight, and physical condition - People who are older or overweight are more susceptible to heat - related illness or injury than someone in good physical condition.
- Acclimation to working in the heat - Someone who has adjusted to being in or working in higher temperatures and changes in weather conditions is less likely to be negatively impacted by the heat than someone who is not.
- The amount of water, alcohol, and caffeine that has been consumed - Drinking water keeps your body hydrated, whereas alcohol and/or caffeine increases water loss and could lead to dehydration.
- Use of certain types of medications - Some medications such as diuretics (often used to treat high blood pressure, edema, glaucoma) increase loss of water from the body which can lead to dehydration.
2. Know the weather forecast and plan accordingly:
- Wear light and/or loose fitting clothing.
- Drink plenty of fluids such as water or sports drinks.
- Take frequent breaks in the shade.
- Wear protective clothing, a hat, and sunscreen.
- Heat Illness (MedlinePlus)
- Heat-Related Illness Prevention-Web Course (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Extreme Heat Media Toolkit (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Understanding Heat-Related Illness-The Basics (Web MD)
- Impacts on Human Health (Environmental Protection Agency)