June 1, 2005 Heat kills more people than tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning and flash floods -- combined. The National Weather Service now gives heat-wave warnings to better forecast local conditions for 16 metropolitan areas, where simple precautions can prevent most of the fatalities.
We think of summer as carefree and fun, but for many people, super-hot weather can be more than uncomfortable. It can be dangerous, especially for children and the elderly. Now scientists have a new way to warn us when the mercury becomes menacing.
Eighty-one-year-old Mary Daneker never looks forward to the sweltering heat of summer. "Since I'm older, it's worse," she says. "When I was younger I could stand it better."
More than 1,500 people die each year from excessive heat. Meteorologist Mark Tew, of NOAA National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md., says, "Heat kills more people than tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning and flash floods, combined."
Older people who live in large cities, like Daneker, are especially vulnerable. "Now I really suffer from the heat," she says.
Meteorologists at the national weather service are expanding and improving the Heat/Health Watch Warning System.
"When we get effective warnings issued and people take action based on them, we'll see a great drop in mortality from excessive heat," says Gary Szatkowski, a meteorologist at NOAA National Weather Service in Mount Helen, N.J.
They are now able to give cities more detailed, customized excessive heat forecasts. Szatkowski says, "Research is done by research meteorologists to determine what weather parameters best predict the threat of excessive heat in a metropolitan area."
The Warning System measures oppressive hot air masses. When an extreme heat condition is headed for an area, forecasters determine the length and expected high temperatures for the heat wave. Then an excessive heat advisory, watch or warning is issued for each city.
"We can put out better warnings instead of basing it on our current system, which is just a heat index value alone," Tew says.
A better warning system could help save lives and help Daneker beat the summer heat. Even so, she says, "I try to stay where it's cool."
The Warning System is currently implemented in 16 cities around the country. Philadelphia was the first city ever to use the system. It is now touted as the model for heat forecasting because of its large success in reducing heat-related fatalities.
BACKGROUND: The National Weather Service is expanding the number of Heat-Health Watch Warning Systems to every city with a population greater than 50,000 people. The systems measure air masses that affect health, particularly in urban centers, which often suffer from too much heat. Excessive heat is the top weather-related cause of deaths. In the U.S., about 1500 deaths from excess heat occur every summer.
WHAT IS HEAT STROKE: The body controls heat through the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that secretes chemicals to control the body's metabolism. The amount of heat the body produces is balanced naturally with the amount of heat lost through sweating. Normally, sweat evaporates from the skin. But if someone is exposed to high heat and humidity, the air is already saturated with moisture and the sweat will not dry quickly enough to cool the body. The body loses water content, along with essential body salts. If the body's core temperature gets high enough, the brain will overheat, causing the person to become disoriented or aggressive; he or she may even begin to hallucinate.
WHAT TO DO: Heat stroke can quickly lead to disability or death, so it's critical to begin cooling efforts immediately until medical help arrives. For example, remove the victim's clothing and apply cool water to skin, then fan the victim to induce sweating. You can also apply ice packs to the groin and armpits; immerse the victim in a tub of cold water or cold shower; or spray the victim with cool water from a garden hose.
REDUCE YOUR RISK:
- Drink plenty of fluids when outdoors on a hot day: two to four glasses every hour. Avoid tea, coffee, soda or alcohol.
- Wear lightweight, tightly woven but loose-fitting clothing in light colors.
- Wear a hat, sunglasses, or use an umbrella to protect yourself from the sun.
- Try to schedule vigorous activity and sports for cooler times of day.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.