It’s Summer. You know what that means. Heatwaves so blistering and humidity so unmerciful that you feel like you’re in a bowl of Grandma’s soup.
When asked “what’s the weather like down there?”, homegrown and transplanted Texans alike are quick to explain that, in the Lone Star State, you might encounter all four seasons on the same day. In other words: unpredictable.
The Lone Star State is notorious for its incredibly diverse climates. As the second-largest U.S. state of over 260-thousand square miles, Texas boasts a range of weather patterns based on location–from the arid western desert to the humid eastern gulf coast, to the snowy mountain ranges of Big Bend Country.
While it is a running joke among Texans that you might wear a scarf in the morning and a pair of shorts in the afternoon, August is that one time out of the year when we all know what to expect: torturous heat.
Like in any weather climate, extreme conditions can directly affect an individual’s health by compromising the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature. Loss of internal temperature control in the presence of extreme heat can result in a barrage of illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke–all of which could easily turn fatal.
So, how do we Texans survive this brazen assault of near-fatal temperatures, often soaring well over 100 degrees? And how can we protect others from the stifling heat waves of summer?
The invention of the AC
The solution to the life-threatening possibility of developing a heat-related illness began more than a century ago, with somewhat surprising origins.
Willis Haviland Carrier
Born on November 26th, 1876 in Angola, New York, Willis Haviland Carrier was a Cornell University graduate and engineer, best known for inventing modern air conditioning.
A Brief Timeline
1902. In response to an air quality problem experienced at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company of Brooklyn, Willis Carrier submitted mechanical drawings for what became recognized as the world’s first modern air conditioning system. The system was installed in order to prevent the misalignment of ink caused by the expansion and contraction of paper stock in the humid climate of the printing plant.
1915. Carrier Engineering Corporation was launched as an independent company by Willis Carrier, and six other young entrepreneurs, to install air conditioning in facilities producing everything from celluloid film to textiles, paper, flour and pharmaceuticals.
1925. In the midst of the roaring 20s, Carrier partnered with three large fan manufacturers to establish the Aerofin Corporation, which installed lightweight air conditioning systems in high-traffic department stores where temperature control was becoming an issue.
With the onslaught of the Great Depression and the dissipation of department store consumerism, air conditioning skyrocketed in popularity with the installation of systems in public movie theaters–the first place that citizens of all walks of life could experience comfort cooling in what was the darkest economic era in U.S. history.
1950s. By the middle of the 20th century, air conditioning was a billion-dollar industry. Carrier’s invention was installed around the world in thousands of factories, offices, stores, hospitals, hotels, and, most importantly–homes.
The post-war population explosion of the 1950s came hand-in-hand with the dramatic expansion of the U.S. residential market, where the sale of room air conditioning jumped to more than 1 million units in 1953. Soon after, television advertising would emphasize its benefits of “better appetites, better sleeping, happier home life, cleaner houses, less hay fever.”
The use of climate control quickly grew in popularity among different industries, most commonly grouped by two types of application: comfort and process.
- Commercial buildings, such as offices, malls, and restaurants.
- Residential buildings, such as single-family homes, duplexes, and apartment blocks.
- Industrial spaces, such as machine shops and auto garages.
- Cars, aircraft, boats
- Institutional buildings, such as hospitals and schools.
- Chemical and biological labs
- Environmental control of data centers
- Facilities for breeding lab animals
- Food cooking and processings spaces
- Industrial environments
- Nuclear power facilities
- Plants and farming
- Textile manufacturing
In both comfort and process applications, the objective may be to not only control temperature, but also humidity, air quality, and air movement from space to space.
While the advancement of air conditioning has certainly reduced the risk of developing heat-related illnesses, Texans must not overlook the importance of taking further precautions to protect themselves when a climate-controlled environment is not available.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention offers a wealth of information when it comes to safety during natural disasters and severe weather.
- Wear Appropriate Clothing: Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
- Stay Cool Indoors: Stay in an air-conditioned place as much as possible. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library—even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler when you go back into the heat. Call your local health department to see if there are any heat-relief shelters in your area.
Keep in mind: Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, they will not prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off. Use your stove and oven less to maintain a cooler temperature in your home.
- Schedule Outdoor Activities Carefully: Try to limit your outdoor activity to when it’s coolest, like morning and evening hours. Rest often in shady areas so that your body has a chance to recover.
- Pace Yourself: Cut down on exercise during the heat. If you’re not accustomed to working or exercising in a hot environment, start slowly and pick up the pace gradually. If exertion in the heat makes your heart pound and leaves you gasping for breath, STOP all activities. Get into a cool area or into the shade, and rest, especially if you become lightheaded, confused, weak, or faint.
- Wear Sunscreen: Sunburn affects your body’s ability to cool down and can make you dehydrated. If you must go outdoors, protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and by putting on sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher 30 minutes prior to going out. Continue to reapply it according to the package directions. Tip: Look for sunscreens that say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels- these products work best.
- Avoid Hot and Heavy Meals: They add heat to your body!
- Drink Plenty of Fluids: Drink more fluids, regardless of how active you are. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Stay away from very sugary or alcoholic drinks—these actually cause you to lose more body fluid. Also avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.
Warning: If your doctor limits the amount you drink or has you on water pills, ask how much you should drink while the weather is hot.
- Replace Salt and Minerals: Heavy sweating removes salt and minerals from the body that need to be replaced. A sports drink can replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat.
If you are on a low-salt diet, have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other chronic conditions, talk with your doctor before drinking a sports beverage or taking salt tablets.
- Check for Updates: Check your local news for extreme heat alerts and safety tips and to learn about any cooling shelters in your area.
- Know the Signs: Learn the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and how to treat them.
- Use a Buddy System: When working in the heat, monitor the condition of your co-workers and have someone do the same for you. Heat-induced illness can cause a person to become confused or lose consciousness. If you are 65 years of age or older, have a friend or relative call to check on you twice a day during a heatwave. If you know someone in this age group, check on them at least twice a day.
Protecting Vulnerable Groups
Although anyone at any time can suffer from heat-related illness, some people are at greater risk than others.
People who work outdoors are more likely to become dehydrated and develop heat-related illnesses when precautions are not taken in the presence of extreme temperatures.
According to the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA), 16 workers died between January and July 2016 as a result of heat-related illness.
To prevent heat-related illnesses and injuries on the job, an in-depth heat-related illness prevention program should be developed and utilized by employers:
- Reduce workplace heat stress by implementing engineering and work practice controls, such as use of reflective barriers, limit time in heat, and increasing the number of workers per task.
- Provide a heat stress training program for all workers and supervisors about the following: recognizing signs of heat-related illness, procedures for responding to possible illness, and the importance of acclimation.
- Make certain that workers acclimatized to heat by gradually increasing the time they work in hot environments.
- Provide the means for appropriate hydration of worker.
- Ensure and encourage workers to take appropriate rest breaks to cool down and hydrate.
If your employer does not take these safety measures in the presence of extreme heat and you are injured on the job, you may be entitled to pursue legal action.
Older adults are more prone to heat stress as they don’t adjust well as younger people to changes in temperature. They’re also more likely to have a chronic medical condition that changes normal body responses to heat, and are more likely to take prescription medications that affect the body’s ability to control its temperature or sweat.
Visit elderly adults at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Keep them cool and hydrated by ensuring they follow these important tips:
- Stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible. If their home doesn’t have air conditioning, contact your local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area.
- Do not rely on a fan as your main cooling source when it’s really hot outside.
- Drink more water than usual and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
- If their doctor limits the amount of fluids they drink, ask them how much they should drink during hot weather.
- Don’t use the stove or oven to cook.
- Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Take cool showers or baths to cool down.
- Do not engage in very strenuous activities and get plenty of rest.
Infants & Children
Infants and young children rely on others to keep them cool and hydrated when it’s hot outside, so it’s important to remember that they require additional supervision during times of extreme heat.
- Never leave infants, children, or pets in a parked car, even if the windows are cracked open. Cars can quickly heat up to dangerous temperatures, even with a window cracked open.
- Keep them cool and hydrated.
- Dress infants and children in loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Make sure they’re drinking plenty of fluids. Stay away from really cold drinks or drinks with too much sugar.
In addition following the tips outlined above, low-income households should prepare ahead of time for extreme heat this summer, especially if air conditioning is not available in your home.
- Contact Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for help.
- Contact your local health department or locate an air-conditioned shelter in your area.
Extreme heat can be dangerous for anyone, but it can be especially dangerous for those with chronic medical conditions as they may be less likely to sense and respond to changes in temperature or they may be taking medications that can make the effect of extreme heat worse.
If someone you know has a chronic medical condition, keep a close eye on those in your care by visiting them at least twice a day, and ask yourself these questions:
- Are they drinking enough water?
- Do they have access to air conditioning?
- Do they know how to keep cool?
- Do they show any signs of heat stress?
Pets can suffer from heat-related illness too! Domestic pets such as cats and dogs are far less capable of regulating their body temperature in extreme weather. In fact, some breeds cannot withstand temperatures as low as 75 degrees.
- Provide plenty of fresh water for your pets, and leave the water in a shady area.
- Never leave your pet in a parked car–temperatures inside the car can rise almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit within the first 10 minutes, even with a window cracked open.
Warning Signs of Heat Illness
It’s important to recognize and respond to symptoms of heat-related illnesses, for the safety of yourself and others.
Heatstroke is a condition where the body’s cooling mechanisms are overcome by heat resulting in a high core heat usually above 104 F in adults, and 105 F in children.
What to Look For:
- High body temperature (103°F or higher)
- Hot, red, dry, or damp skin
- Fast, strong pulse
- Losing consciousness (passing out)
What to Do:
- Call 911 right away – heat stroke is a medical emergency
- Move the person to a cooler place
- Help lower the person’s temperature with cool cloths or a cool bath
- Do not give the person anything to drink
Heat exhaustion is a condition whose symptoms may include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse, a result of your body overheating.
What to Look For:
- Heavy sweating
- Cold, pale, and clammy skin
- Fast, weak pulse
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle cramps
- Tiredness or weakness
- Fainting (passing out)
What to Do:
- Move to a cool place
- Loosen your clothes
- Put cool, wet cloths on your body or take a cool bath
- Sip water
Get medical help right away if:
- You are throwing up
- Your symptoms get worse
- Your symptoms last longer than 1 hour
Heat cramps are muscle spasms that result from the loss of a large amount of salt and water through exercising in a hot environment.
What to Look For:
- Heavy sweating during intense exercise
- Muscle pain or spasms
What to Do:
- Stop physical activity and move to a cool place
- Drink water or a sports drink
- Wait for cramps to go away before you do any more physical activity
Get medical help right away if:
- Cramps last longer than 1 hour
- You’re on a low-sodium diet
- You have heart problems