What Everybody Ought to Know About Extreme Heat
BU researchers are learning how climate change impacts us all
By Thalia Plata
This summer has been a hot one — like most of the East Coast, Boston, not typically associated with scorching hot summers, saw two prolonged heat waves. To put it into context Boston has only experienced five prolonged heat waves in the last 30 years. Southern states, where summer is already hot, saw multiple triple-digit heat waves. Across the Atlantic, many countries in Europe also saw devastating heat waves.
Unfortunately, extreme heat during the summer months is predicted to become the new normal. Researchers at Boston University are tackling the issue of extreme heat and are learning more about how this issue affects us all.
Risk of Miscarriage May Increase During the Summer
Boston University School of Public Health (SPH) researchers compared seasonal differences in miscarriage risk and found that in North America pregnant people had a 44 percent higher risk of an early miscarriage in the summer months and 31 percent higher in all stages of pregnancy. Pregnant people in the South and Midwest, where summers are hottest, were more likely to experience this loss in late August and early September, respectively.
While further research is needed to understand whether extreme heat is causing these seasonal trends, “we know that heat is associated with higher risk of other pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm delivery, low birth weight, and stillbirth, in particular,” said study lead and corresponding author Amelia Wesselink, research assistant professor of epidemiology. “Medical guidance and public health messaging — including heat action plans and climate adaptation policies — need to consider the potential effects of heat on the health of pregnant people and their babies.”
Summer Heat and Mental Health
In a study published by JAMA Psychiatry, SPH researchers found that the number of patients seeking mental health support at an emergency department (ED) in the United States went up during periods of intense heat. Summer days with extreme heat were particularly associated with increased rates of ED visits for childhood-onset behavioral and substance use disorders, anxiety and stress disorders, and mood disorders.
“Emergency department visits represent some of the costliest interactions within the healthcare system,” says study lead author Amruta Nori-Sarma, SPH assistant professor of environmental health. “Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable to preempt some of these visits can have a positive impact on individual health and costs, as well as preserve healthcare resources for other emergencies.”
Age and Extreme Heat
While hospitalization due to extreme heat is often associated with the elderly, SPH researchers found that days of extreme heat were associated with a higher risk of ER visits among all adults, but the strongest association was among adults aged 18 to 64. SPH study found that days of extreme heat were associated with a higher risk of ER visits among adults aged 18 to 64, compared to adults over 75
“Younger adults may be at greater risk of exposure to extreme heat, particularly among workers that spend substantial time outdoors,” says study lead author Shengzhi Sun, an SPH research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health. “Younger adults may also not realize that they too can be at risk on days of extreme heat.”
Collecting Data to Help Urban Communities
Extreme heat and high temperatures are dangerous, and could even be lethal, for people in vulnerable communities — those in low-income areas, often in dense urban neighborhoods. The C-Heat Project is trying to change that.
Led by SPH professors Madeleine Scammell and Patricia Fabian, the team of researchers is studying air and ground temperatures in Chelsea, Mass., an urban “heat island” that’s getting hotter from climate change. The project, which is in its data collection stage, uses 20 heat sensors on trees to track temperatures around the city of Chelsea, MA, in hopes of using the data to improve the lives of people living in similar urban areas and test the efficacy of city cooling methods.
“There’s a health toll to living in an urban heat island,” says Scammell. “People’s experience of heat vastly differs and having resources to cope makes a huge difference that can be life or death.
Rising Temps = Rising Energy Use
It’s not surprising that with higher temperatures people will rely more on their air conditioning; however, this band-aid solution carries its own set of problems. The additional energy demand to power air-conditioning could make a bad situation worse, according to College of Arts and Sciences’ professor Ian Sue Wing.
Wing and his fellow researchers found that by 2050, even modest warming of our climate could increase the world’s energy needs by as much as 25 percent. The problem with that is that currently most of the world’s energy supply comes from burning fossil fuels.
“We could use coal, or we could use renewable sources, and those two choices mean very different things for our future. With coal, [an increase in demand] will mean more greenhouse gas emissions. That’s what keeps me up at night.” said Wing.
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