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It’s getting hotter in Connecticut. How is the heat impacting your health?

Bradley Hook

One of the hottest Connecticut summers on record is coming to a close. How is the heat impacting health across the state?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jan Ellen Spiegel to discuss her article, “How heat affects health: An overlooked outcome of climate change,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Jan, this last summer was probably the hottest I have seen in Connecticut, because I can tell from my energy bills. They’ve never been as high as this. What is the effect of heat on health?

JS: There are a number of reports that have come out recently really focusing on health and climate change broadly and their first stop is always heat. Heat is, let's say, kind of an insidious part of this, you don't necessarily recognize heat is causing the problem you're having, because in some cases, it's not a direct impact. With something like heatstroke, where you know it's hot, and your body is affected by that. A lot of times it's a multiplier effect. If you have heart disease, it can make that worse. If you have allergies, it can make them worse, it can combine with poor air quality and make things like asthma worse. So it kind of infiltrates all the other effects there.

And as I said, there are a number of reports that have come out recently, a big one focusing just on Connecticut that came out from Yale University, from its new center on climate change and health. And the venerable New England Journal of Medicine, which has focused on climate change in the past, really has a very, very complete series that has recently started where they're taking aspects of climate change in health. And they're providing an interactive graphic, where you can see all these effects, heat in particular, it can cause kidneys to fail, it can cause all kinds of things that folks may not necessarily recognize are a function of heat.

WSHU: Even for pregnant women, it has an effect on pregnant women.

JS: Pregnant women, kids, older people, anybody with secondary issues, and you know, those are just the physical components, then there are sort of the cognitive components of heat. If you're a kid sitting in an un-air conditioned hot classroom, how well are you going to concentrate? How well are you going to remember what you've been told? What kind of state of being will you be in?

There's a lot more anger and road rage and short tempers and potentially deadly violence that can come out of heat, any number of areas, you know, sort of more anecdotally than anything, we'll say. There's more arrests. There's more violence when it's hot out.

WSHU: Now, Connecticut is doing something about this. The governor has set up an office of Climate and Public Health, what is that office and what is it doing?

JS: Well, it's really just getting going. It's gotten itself a grant that the federal government has had for a while to begin to figure out how to go about approaching it. The first thing that that office wants to do, though, is really focused on the kids and the kids in school. And you might think to yourself, well, wait a minute, kids aren't really generally in school at the hottest time of the year in the summer. But as they want to point out, it's hotter earlier, it's hotter later, a lot of schools are not air conditioned.

And one of the hidden things they're hoping to do is what we've done with a lot of things with kids is teach the kids about it, and they come home and bug their parents about it. So it's one way to make people more aware of it. I think it's new, we're going to have to wait a while to really see some stuff come out of there.

WSHU: Now, in this article, you focus on a study that's been done in two Connecticut cities, Norwalk, and Danbury. Could you just tell us what this study is about? One of the interesting things that I saw in that was that trees don't necessarily protect us from heat. I thought that was fascinating.

JS: Okay, two different things here. The two projects that are ongoing in Danbury and Norwalk, that is to in a sense, separate what we see in terms of heat data, which comes from satellites, and they'll tell you how hot a surface gets. But that satellite data, which we have plenty of, doesn't really tell you how hot people feel. You know, sometimes you'll hear meteorologists say, there's a heat index or a “feels like” temperature. You combine the heat, the actual heat, the temperature, and when you stick a thermometer out there, plus things like humidity, plus things like dew point to get what it really feels like to a person on the ground. And that's what these two projects are starting to do, really get a sense of what people feel in terms of heat, and how it might be different from location to location within a given city. Is it shaded? Are there breezes? Is it all pavement? Does it get direct sunlight, absolutely all day?

So that's what the projects are aiming to do to get a little bit more granular, get a little bit more fine tuning on this. It reflects on the tree component in that if you're putting up a tree for shading to essentially help cool an area down, you have to think about what the sun angle is there. And whether the shading is late in the day, earlier in the day, whether everything is heated up before the shading really takes effect. So it's a little bit more complicated than just throwing a tree in. Now, if you also have a lot of moisture going in some way, because remember, trees take in and emit all kinds of, you know, moisture and carbon dioxide and everything else, those trees can actually create a little bit more humidity is what an earlier study kind of found out. And so there's a lot more thought being considered in terms of how we deal with trees in a location to help with cooling the area.

Again, it's not just throwing up a tree anywhere. You got to think it out. That's part of what the message is coming out of that.

WSHU: Yes, it's just fascinating. I thought you just planted a tree anywhere. And that would be it.

JS: Nope. You know the other thing, trees are not the only things that can help an area adapt to clearly what we have, which is climate change and a hotter temperature. I mean, part of the issue here is not to just have people crank up air conditioners and make sure people have air conditioners, that is important. But there are also ways that the community can build itself and take actions to prevent it from getting as hot as it might otherwise get.

Trees are one component of that. But literally there's research ongoing to figure out how you build the building, how high what the angles are, how close they are to each other, to allow wind and breezes to come through and cool buildings, what kind of materials you use, reflective materials that will keep the building from getting extremely hot. Those sorts of things are being researched throughout the country. We have a little bit of it in Connecticut, New Haven in particular has had an ordinance on the books for quite some time for new buildings, commercial buildings mainly, and the kinds of materials that might be required to help keep them cooler from the get go.

One of the things Connecticut may want to rethink is that, you know, we have this shoreline that everybody wants to live on, and we throw up buildings down there, it might be something that Connecticut considers in the future, how many buildings and how tall they are, that you would put on the coastline, because a tall building on the coastline conceivably can block breezes that might otherwise be able to cool areas a little further inland, and prevent them from getting as hot as they might be getting now.

WSHU: Now also, it's fascinating because we have this big federal bill that is supposed to deal with climate change. And I was wondering how, you know, the different aspects of the programs would be, and you have it here that the CDC has money to actually give out grants to study the building of resilience against climate effects. And people aren't used to thinking about the CDC and climate effects. Could you just tell us a little bit about that and what's going on there?

JS: The CDC has had something called a grace grant, they've had them for a while. Connecticut has never applied for one before, and it did and received it. That's the money that the new Office of Climate and Public Health is using. It really is the way I understand it. I'm admittedly not a super expert on Grace grants. But it helps an office like the new one in Connecticut, essentially come up with a five stage process to figure out how to go about dealing with these things, and then deal with them. And as I also understand it, it's not like it comes up every year, it comes up periodically, it's a bit more unpredictable than some other things. But the issue of heat has become so pronounced, that it's very much bubbling up around the country around the world, frankly, as something that has to be dealt with, in addition to what it may do to the land, in terms of agriculture, and things like that.

It needs to be dealt with, in what it does to the human body, and how you're going to deal with that.

WSHU: Now, social networks actually play a big role in how we deal with the heat. Could you just tell us a little bit about that? I thought it was fascinating.

JS: Yeah, that was really interesting. There is a lot of research being done out in the Pacific Northwest in the Portland, Oregon area, on issues related to heat, because, of course, they've had some really, really severe heat this past summer and the summer before. Deadly heat. And it's an area that usually doesn't get that hot. And so people don't have air conditioning and whatnot. And researchers out there are really looking at ways to help notify people that it is hot, and that they need to do something. So in the past, they've looked at how a social network would work. If you have a family unit, if you have a unit of friends, and you are interacting with people. It's kind of like other sorts of social interactions. In the case of heat, a friend or a family member would be more inclined to check on you if you're involved in this type of network.

When you think about it, logically, that makes a lot of sense. What they were experimenting with this summer, and the results are really not there yet, is putting monitors into public housing units that can record temperature and also send out notifications to people that say it's getting hot, you need to do something. And they tried that in I believe about half a dozen units this summer. And they're beginning to crunch the data and see how it worked. This was in Portland, Oregon.

So you know that's kind of combining a warning system with a type of social network that is being done through a little non-invasive monitor.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.