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Western North Carolina circa 2016 - the heat is on

Brita Larsen Clark GUEST COLUMNIST 10:57 a.m. EDT July 1, 2016

brita clarkLongtime residents of Western North Carolina will tell you that things have heated up around here in the last couple of decades. Sure, there were always hot spells, but the nights were cool and it wasn’t until a few years ago that we began to really feel the heat.

The current heat wave we are now experiencing is more than an uncomfortable inconvenience, though. As our climate changes people across the globe are facing chaotic weather. Searing heat, numbing cold, drought, flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes are all more frequent as our world drifts toward a warmer future.

Our current heat wave is hard on everyone, but for many of our friends and neighbors it can cause serious health problems. People with heart disease or respiratory problems are at an increased risk. Hospitalizations for stroke also increase, and chronic illnesses of all kinds become worse (a 2003 heat wave in Europe caused an estimated 70,000 excess deaths).

Heat waves take a toll on our mental health as well. Prolonged periods of intense heat not only make us uncomfortable, they raise our stress levels and keep us from getting outdoors and enjoying our usual routines. Studies cited by PSR (see below) show that the heat also shortens tempers, increasing the risks of domestic violence, suicide, and homicide.

We are all affected by the heat in one way or another, but the effects are especially serious for the most vulnerable members of our community. Babies and young children, for instance, are not as good as most adults at regulating body temperature. The elderly also have declining ability to regulate their internal temperature, and, like children, they are more vulnerable to dehydration. The aged are often also suffering from diabetes, heart disease, lung problems, and other long-term issues that are exacerbated by excessive heat.

In the short run, most of us can protect ourselves by sheltering in a cool place and staying hydrated. But we need to think long term. Not everyone agrees that climate change is caused by people, but we all have a stake in slowing, and maybe even eventually stopping, the slide toward more dangerous and chaotic weather.

We Americans generate more carbon dioxide per household than any other country (55,000 tons annually). There are things we can do that will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are trapping heat in our atmosphere. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is key. Among the steps we can take are supporting mass transit, driving less, nudging up our summer thermostats, using less hot water, and line drying our clothes when possible.

Though these are small, personal actions they can make a big difference when we collectively commit to them. Our world is getting less comfortable and less healthy, but our decisions today with have an impact on the world our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will live in.

For more detailed information on the health effects of climate change, please visit:
•The Center for Disease Control and prevention at CDC.gov
•Physicians for Social Responsibility at PSR.org
•The Union of concerned Scientists at USCA.org

Brita Larsen Clark is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Western North Carolina chapter.

Mission Statement

PREVENTING WHAT WE CANNOT CURE: Physicians for Social Responsibility is the medical and public health voice working to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and the toxic degradation of the environment.

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