Sustainability Climate Change

HHS report warns of extreme heat risks in coming months

“Violence, crime, and suicide may increase with temperature, adding to the rates of depression and anxiety already associated with climate change.”
Temperature displayed on sign
The Associated Press/Orlin Wagner

Story at a glance

  • Temperatures predicted for the summer of 2022 are greater than those anticipated for the same time last year.

  • Extreme heat carries numerous health risks including heat stroke and dehydration.

  • The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity report offers recommendations for managing extreme heat in vulnerable populations.

States across the country are preparing for another blistering summer as average temperatures continue to climb thanks to climate change.

In an effort to better prepare municipalities, first responders and health systems for the toll these heat waves will take, the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), this week released their second installment of the Climate Health Outlook.

First launched in May, the public health information series aims to protect “people and their health by giving advance notice to the communities that will be most impacted in the coming months,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a press release.

The report is specific to June through August of 2022, while temperature forecasts were based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. 

An extremely hot day is defined as any daily maximum temperature over the 95th percentile of the historical temperature distribution in each county. Estimates show the majority of extreme heat days will be focused in the southwest United States, putting nearly 22 million people at risk of heat-related health outcomes. 

According to authors, several groups of people are at particular risk, including the elderly who live alone, those in rural areas, people with poor access to health care, those who work outdoors and individuals living in urban settings with poor tree cover, among others. 

“Spikes in energy demand should be expected during summer months as air conditioning use increases,” the report said. “The combination of sagging power lines (copper expands as it heats up, thus increasing impedance and reducing throughput) and increased energy demands can cause power failures that make certain populations more vulnerable when the risk is highest.” 

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Extreme heat can cause a myriad of health issues, including increased risk of hospitalization for heart disease, and increased risks of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, worsening asthma and respiratory diseases, and dehydration, which can cause kidney and blood pressure problems. In addition, certain medications can increase the risk of heat-related illness, and others may become less effective in higher temperatures. 

“Violence, crime, and suicide may increase with temperature, adding to the rates of depression and anxiety already associated with climate change,” authors noted. 

Of the 132 counties identified as having more than five expected extreme heat days in the month of June, the majority (56 percent) have a high number of residents without health insurance. Sixty-seven percent have a high number of residents living in areas without adequate tree cover, and 58 percent of counties are highly vulnerable, based on the CDC’s social vulnerability index.

For most of the continental United States, temperatures will be between 1.8 to 3.6 degrees above average between June and August, with central and western regions expected to experience temperatures 3.6 to 5.4 degrees above normal during this window — marking a significant increase from temperatures predicted for last summer. 

Between June and July 2021, heat-related deaths increased from two to 145 in Washington, zero to 119 in Oregon, and 12 to 25 in California compared with the same time in 2020. For Washington, the 2021 heat wave marked the deadliest weather event in the state’s history, local media reported at the time

OCCHE’s recommendations for outdoor workers facing extreme heat include building a heat tolerance by easing into outdoor work, taking breaks in shaded areas and checking in on workers wearing face coverings. 

The report also offers resources on opening cooling shelters for local organizations and clinical best practices for managing cases of heat stroke.