How Hot Is Too Hot? Vermonters Experience Serious Health Effects

Front Page / Jul. 30, 2015 10:13am EDT

A Vermont Department of Health analysis shows that Vermonters are at greater risk for serious illnesses, even death, when the statewide average temperature reaches or exceeds 87°F. Adults age 75 and older and 15- 34 experience the highest rates of heat-related illnesses. Adults 65 and older are at higher risk for death on such hot days.

“Vermonters may be especially vulnerable because our bodies are not accustomed to hot temperatures and because many older homes and businesses are not well designed to deal with summer heat,” said David Grass, environmental health surveillance chief at the Health Department. “This explains why we see some of the highest rates of heat-related illnesses in the cooler counties. In general, Vermonters should take the necessary precautions when temperatures are forecast for the mid-80s or higher.”

The statewide average temperature of 87°F corresponds to a range from about 85°F in cooler counties like Bennington and Essex to almost 89°F in warmer counties like Chittenden and Windham. Those who work or exercise outdoors, infants and children, people who are obese or have a chronic medical condition, and people living in more urbanized areas also tend to be at greater risk. Some people will suffer heat-related illnesses at temperatures lower than this range.

Working with the Vermont State Climate Office, the Health Department analyzed 14 years of temperature, mortality, and emergency department data to determine the threshold for heat-related illnesses and death. On days when the statewide average temperature reached at least 87°F, heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, occurred eight times more frequently, and there was one additional death per day among individuals age 65 and older. Heart disease, stroke, and neurological conditions were more common causes of death on these hot days.

“Heat alerts are issued when the combination of temperatures and humidity create a heat index, or apparent temperature, of 100°F or higher,” said Andy Nash, meteorologist-incharge at the National Weather Service Burlington office. “However, it is critical for everyone to understand their personal risk level for heat-related illness. This analysis shows that some Vermonters can have problems at temperatures below official heat advisories and warnings.”

Since 2000, Vermont has experienced an average of seven hot days per year when the statewide average temperature was 87°F or hotter. Climate change projections provided by the Vermont State Climate Office show that we can expect 15-20 hot days per year by mid-century and 20- 34 hot days per year by the end of the century.

“Extreme heat is a health concern to be taken seriously,” said Health Commissioner Harry Chen, MD, “This analysis helps us to understand how hot is ‘too hot’ in Vermont. As a community, we have to take steps to recognize and minimize the health impacts of extreme heat.”

The Health Department recommends the following: Stay in a cool location—either in the shade outdoors or in a cool room inside such as a basement or air-conditioned room; draw shades while inside to keep out the sun; limit exercise and outdoor activity during the hottest midday hours; and wear lightweight, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothing.

Also: take a cool shower or bath, or go swimming in a safe location; drink more water than usual—don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink; avoid alcohol, caffeine, and drinks containing high amounts of sugar; rest if you feel faint or sick; check in on loved ones and neighbors; follow local weather and news reports; and never leave children, pets, or adults with disabilities in a parked vehicle.

The Health Department also encourages all Vermonters to learn the signs and first aid responses for heatrelated illness. Heat cramps may be the first sign; other signs may include weakness, heavy sweating, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fainting, and confusion.

More information is available at healthvermont.gov/emerg/extremeheat. aspx.

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