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Heat Stroke Risk Rises With Energy Woes

CDC concerned that high cost could force elderly to forgo air conditioning

FRIDAY, July 6, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The government is concerned that soaring utility costs in the West could cause another statistic to rise: heat-related health problems.

Energy problems in California and the Southwest could have a serious effect on heat-related injury and death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns. And with summer temperatures expected to be above normal in the Southwest, officials are gearing up to protect senior citizens and the very young.

The agency has posted a heat fact sheet on its Web site, says Alden Henderson, a health scientist with the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health. "The key issue we wanted to get out to people is that they should get to air-conditioned rooms" when the mercury rises, he says.

But, he adds, "If there's a brownout and you're without air conditioning for a few hours, it's not going to be much of a problem."

"The heat is certainly is a big problem here," says G.G. Crawley, deputy director of San Bernardino County's department of Aging and Adult Services in San Bernardino, Calif. "It gets extremely hot out here -- in some areas 110 to 120 degrees -- given that a large percentage of the county is high desert."

Although there have been no senior deaths because of heat exposure this year, Crawley says, a child died after being left in a hot car for a short time.

"And I don't know if anyone died of heat exposure last year, but we are still very concerned about it, especially with the high cost of utilities," Crawley adds. "We had unseasonably cold weather this winter, and our seniors complained that costs were extremely high and because of that they could not afford to pay their utilities. And in some cases, those utilities were turned off."

Those high energy bills have officials in San Bernardino County concerned that seniors will turn off their air conditioning this summer. "It's often a choice between eating, buying medication or keeping the air conditioning on," Crawley says.

Crawley says San Bernardino County put together a publication to alert senior citizens, caregivers, and relatives on what kind of clothes to wear, what kinds of food to eat, and where to go if heat becomes a problem.

"What we advise people to do, if they need to cut back on their utility costs, and they can get up and about, is to go to what we call cooling centers -- libraries, malls and senior citizens [centers], where there is air conditioning.

"But when they're homebound, there's not much we can do," Crawley adds. "We've been trying to make providers and caregivers and relatives aware of what to do."

The CDC says more people die from hot weather than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes put together. Between 1979 and 1998, a total of 7,421 deaths in the United States were heat-related, the government says, and about 300 people die each year from heat exposure.

Kids under the age of 4 and people over the age of 65 are particularly at risk from heat exposure, the CDC says. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are the two most common problems of excessive heat exposure.

Heat stroke results when the body becomes unable to control its own temperature. Excessive heat causes the body's temperature to rise rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.

Heat exhaustion is the body's response to an excessive loss of water and salt contained in sweat. The most common symptoms of heat exhaustion are heavy sweating. muscle cramps, dizziness, nausea or vomiting and fainting.

San Bernardino also provides some funds to help seniors and low-income people pay those utility bills, says Charles Adams, deputy director the county's Community Services department. "It's a credit to the gas or electric bill that we pay directly to the utility," Adams describes. "It's a pretty elaborate formula and varies from individual to individual."

The county provided additional funds for the program this year, Adams says, "but there's just not enough funding. We are doing the best we can and it's a greatly appreciated program. These senior citizens and low-income people often have to make some very difficult decisions on how to divide up their income."

Arizona officials say they don't expect to have a problem with heat exposure this year. "We don't have the same problem as other states do," says Norm Peterson, Arizona's state epidemiologist in Phoenix. "We've had a few excess deaths from heat stroke," although that typically happens when people are in the desert too long without protection, he adds. The state has seen a spate of heat-related deaths among people crossing the border from Mexico.

Moreover, Peterson says, "energy problems haven't hit Arizona yet. We have an adequate supply of electricity."

"I haven't heard of any real concerns or issues," agrees Becky Brooks, the interim deputy director of Yuma County's Health Department in Yuma, Ariz. "There's been no real increase in energy pricing here. Our usual summer rates for electricity range anywhere from $200 to $400 a month, and so most people are quite used to that."

What To Do

If you're going to be in the summer heat, drink a lot of liquids but avoid alcohol or drinks with caffeine or a lot of sugar, the CDC advises. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and stay indoors with the air conditioning on.

If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library; even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler when you go back into the heat. Call your local health department to see whether there are any heat-relief shelters in your area.

If a neighbor or loved one is elderly, check on her every so often during heat waves. A 1995 scorcher killed more than 600 people in greater Chicago; many of the victims were older people who lived alone and without air conditioning.

Be extra careful if you take diuretics, which can be found in blood-pressure and some other medications. They tend to take salt out of your body, which can be a problem when you're sweating and not replenishing what you've lost. Drinks with electrolytes (such as Gatorade) can help.

For more information on the dangers of extremely hot days, visit the CDC, the National Weather Service, or the State of California. You'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the California fact sheet. If you don't have it, you can download it here.

And for a brief history of air conditioning, click on Carrier.

SOURCES: Interviews with Alden Henderson, Ph.D., M.P.H., health scientist, National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; G.G. Crawley, deputy director, Department of Aging and Adult Services, San Bernardino County, San Bernardino, Calif.; Charles Adams, deputy director, Department of Community Services, San Bernardino County; Norm Peterson, epidemiologist, State of Arizona, Phoenix; Becky Brooks, interim deputy director, Yuma County Health Department, Yuma, Ariz.
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