Climate change is one of the most important issues of our time and has major health and healthcare implications. Of all the weather-related disasters, heat waves cause the most deaths every year in the United States, and climate change will increase their frequency, duration, and intensity. Heat exposure and health risks are closely linked to the built environment of cities and everyday lived experiences. For example, residents living in neighborhoods lacking trees and green spaces, weatherization and air conditioning, and/or adequate transportation can be exposed to dangerous temperatures throughout a hot day. This may lead to heat cramps, exhaustion, or heat stroke, a life-threatening emergency.
In 2020, the City of Roanoke Office of Sustainability worked with citizen scientists to develop detailed maps depicting the areas of the city with the highest air temperatures. The mapping showed that areas with high levels of social vulnerability, including low-income households, seniors, and communities of color, were on average 7-10 degrees F warmer than other areas of the city, and they also score poorly on the Tree Equity Score. With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over the next two years, the Heat Ready, Roanoke! project will bring together urban planners, local government, healthcare professionals, and residents to: (1) understand the problem of extreme heat, (2) work together to connect existing resources, and (3) co-produce future approaches to increase community resilience to extreme heat using the strategies outlined below.
Heat Mitigation Strategies | Led by Virginia Tech and Roanoke City Public Schools
The STEM+ Urban Planning Heat Resilience curriculum for middle school students, paired with a Science and Urban Planning Family Summit, will help students and families identify heat-related problems and empower communities to brainstorm how to protect health and improve their built environment.
Heat Management Strategies | Led by Carilion Clinic and Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action (VCCA)
Clinicians and community health staff will receive training on climate change’s impacts on health with a focus on heat illness; will partner with community organizations, including the Healthy Homes Initiative, to connect clients with resources to improve their health and living environment, such as free air-conditioning units and utility payment assistance; and will host a health and climate conference.
Heat Resilience Strategies | Led by City of Roanoke, VCCA, and Carilion Clinic
Trained healthcare providers, the City of Roanoke, community leaders, and organizations will host a Heat Resilience Fair to increase awareness about heat-related mental and physical health risks and available resources in the city. Results and evaluation of the grant work will provide valuable insights to influence future city plans including mitigation and adaptation strategies and policy development that address heat effects.
Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature rises quickly, which can lead to death. Call 911 or go to an emergency room if you or someone you know has the following symptoms:
- Hot, dry skin
- Confusion, hallucinations and disorientation
- Loss of consciousness or being unresponsive
- Nausea or vomiting
- Trouble breathing
- Fast, strong pulse
If you or someone you know has signs of heat exhaustion, get to a cool place, remove extra clothes and drink lots of water.
Symptoms to look for:
- Heavy sweating
- Cold, clammy skin
- Muscle cramps
- Lightheadedness or feeling faint
- Decreased energy
- Loss of appetite or nausea
Muscular pains and spasms, usually in the legs or abdomen are often an early sign the body is having trouble with the heat.
Get more information on heat related illness here
Who is most affected by heat?
(info below from NYC.gov site)
While everyone is affected by extreme heat, some people are at higher risk than others.
People are more likely to die from heat if they do not have or use air conditioning and:
- Have chronic medical conditions, such as heart, lung or kidney disease, diabetes or obesity.
- Have serious mental health, cognitive or developmental conditions, such as dementia or schizophrenia.
- Take medicines that make it difficult for your body to stay cool (speak to your doctor or pharmacist for more information).
- Misuse drugs or alcohol.
- Have limited mobility or are unable to leave the home.
Adults age 60 and older are more likely to have some combination of these risk factors. Heat impacts are also more likely to be experienced among:
- Infants and children: Babies and children up to 4 years old are more sensitive to heat. Caregivers need to make sure that infants and children stay cool and have enough to drink. Watch for signs they may be getting sick from the heat. Never leave children by themselves in a vehicle.
- Pregnant women: Pregnant women are sensitive to heat. An increase in body temperature may bring on labor, preterm birth or lower birth weight. Those who are pregnant should stay in a cool place, drink fluids and take it easy when it’s hot.
- Workers: People who work in hot indoor places are at risk of getting sick from the heat. People who work outside are also at risk during very hot weather. Water, rest and keeping cool can help workers stay safe.
Image from VCCA Heat Report 2021
Roanoke’s summer heat and humidity is not just uncomfortable. It can be dangerous. Extreme heat can push the human body beyond its limits, making it extra hard to maintain a normal temperature. Because of climate change, Roanoke residents are experiencing hotter temperatures, making it more important than ever to be ready. Take control of your health and get heat ready with the following information, tips, and resources.
Takes steps to stay safe
Follow these tips to help lower your risk of suffering from heat illness while indoors:
- Use your air conditioner if you have one. Fans are not enough to stay cool.
- Set your air conditioning unit to 78° or “low cool” to be safe, comfortable and save money. Just a few hours in a cool place can make a difference.
- Close window shades or curtains.
- Try not to use your stove and oven.
- Take a cool shower or bath.
- Drink plenty of water, even if you are not thirsty.
- Avoid drinks with alcohol, caffeine or lots of sugar.
Stay safe outdoors with these tips:
- Avoid strenuous physical activity.
- Drink plenty of water, even if you are not thirsty.
- Stay in the shade and out of direct sun.
- Wear light, loose-fitting clothes.
- Put a hat on to protect your face and head.
- Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher.
- Limit outdoor activities to early morning and late evening hours.
- Avoid drinks with alcohol, caffeine or sugar.
If you work outdoors regularly, you are at higher risk for heat illness. To lower your risk:
- Drink water every 15 minutes.
- Take frequent rest breaks in shaded or air-conditioned areas.
- Wear lightweight, light colored, loose-fitting clothing if possible.
- Be alert for the signs of heat illness in yourself and in your colleagues.
Image from VCCA Heat Report 2021
Check the Weather Reports
Regularly check the heat index at the National Weather Service or other news source. The heat index is a measure of how hot it feels based on temperature and humidity. A heat index above 95°F is especially dangerous.
The national website, www.heat.gov serves as the premier source of heat and health information for the nation to reduce the health, economic, and infrastructural impacts of extreme heat.
What you can do
Make sure to check in on elderly neighbors and those who live alone during times of extreme heat to make sure they are ok. Planting trees in our communities provides shade and reduces temperatures.
We can take steps to protect our communities from extreme heat by supporting policies that address climate change. Reducing air pollution helps to keep a safe climate for our families and future generations. Learn more about how climate change affects health here.
Why the environment matters
The Urban Heat Island Effect
Where people live also impacts their safety from extreme heat. Cities are generally hotter than rural areas due to the “Urban Heat Island” effect. Even where people live within the same city matters. In Roanoke, temperatures can be 7-10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in some parts of the City than others. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Explorer, Roanoke will experience higher temperatures with more intense rainfall events. In a period of official weather data extending from 1912 to 2019, nine of the ten warmest summers for average daily low temperature have occurred since 2005.
But not everyone will suffer equally. Climate-induced weather events have the most profound impact on those who have the least access to financial resources, historically underserved communities, and those struggling with additional health conditions. Extreme heat is creating health and safety threats, especially for older adults, people experiencing homelessness, and those whose homes lack air conditioning.
This is also related to historical racism and underinvestment associated with the now banned racist housing policy called redlining. More and more research is showing that the hottest neighborhoods today are the same neighborhoods once redlined under racially discriminatory home lending practices in the mid-1900s. These neighborhoods often remain lower income and communities of color, with fewer trees and open spaces, exposing residents who need to walk or use public transportation to dangerous heat. In Roanoke specifically, the heat island study done by CAPA found that previously redlined communities have air temperatures that are 7 – 10 degrees F hotter than non-redlined areas in the City.
Read more on this issue and ways to help here.