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Health and Medicine

Social Distancing, Climate Change Could Lead To Heat Deaths Among Aging Californians

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Courtesy National Weather Service Sacramento

Experts note that isolation is a leading contributor to heat deaths. Also, social distancing recommendations during the pandemic are creating a 'perfect storm' of conditions for heat deaths among aging Americans.

Carmelita Miller’s elderly disabled father used to live in an apartment in San Bruno with no central air conditioning. During a heat wave a year ago she got a call about him possibly having a stroke.

“Actually he was severely dehydrated because the building was too hot,” she said. “He was not safe living there.”

Miller is with the Greenling Institute, advocating for low-income communities and people of color to have access to things like affordable or free air conditioning. Many Americans are enduring situations like her father's, and that’s why she says not having AC is a climate change issue.

“With the climate changing, we're actually endangering people who have to stay in their homes,” she said.

There are at least two California programs helping — the Energy Saving Assistance Program and the Energy Efficiency Program — but COVID-19 slowed them down due to contractors not going into homes, said Miller. The group is advocating for a bill — Senate Bill 1403 — that will change the threshold of who is low income based on where they live instead of a broad national standard, which would make more Californians eligible.

“Even with two statewide energy efficiency programs we're still struggling to make sure that folks are directly benefiting from them,” she said. “Our number one priority is to keep everybody safe.”

All this is important because around 12,000 Americans die from heat-related causes every year and around 80% are people 60 or older, according to new findings by the group Climate Central.

They also note that isolation is a leading contributor to heat deaths. Secondarily, social distancing recommendations during the pandemic are creating a 'perfect storm' of conditions for heat deaths among aging Americans.

“This is going to continue to be an issue that becomes a bigger and bigger deal as we go forward in time,” said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist with the group. “We need to think again at the local, state and perhaps federal levels, what we're going to do about it.”

His group found that three quarters of U.S. cities are experiencing an extra week of above normal temperatures than they were 50 years ago — and for 30 cities it’s an extra month. NOAA forecasts suggest 2020 may be the hottest year on record globally, beating 2019 as the second-hottest.

“When that heat hits you very early in the year where your body hasn't been accustomed to this kind of heat for months and months, that can initially stress the body system,” Sublette said.

In places like Los Angeles, the idea of living without a proper way to cool a home is a reality for many low income, disadvantaged communities, according to research from USC. That’s a threat to human health as the prevalence of heat waves increases due to climate change.

The study looks at how the use of residential electricity could go up in Southern California as the world gets warmer. They looked at smart meter data and figured out how much electrical use would increase for each degree of warming in each census tract. They found that poorer census tracts have less access to air conditioning units.

“Our research suggests that more than half (55%) of the census tracts identified as most vulnerable are expected to experience more than 16 extreme heat days above 95 F per year by the end of the century,” said study author George Ban-Weiss in a release. He’s a professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC Viterbi.

Both studies showcase how climate change is disproportionately altering the lives of the most vulnerable. That’s why environmental advocates hope this kind of research directs resources to better prepare these populations to weather the climate crisis.

Copyright 2020 CapRadio