CDC Launches Initiative to Prevent Extreme Heat Exposure

In 2023, the United States saw rates of emergency department visits for heat-related illness increase substantially. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hopes to combat the increased health risks with a new initiative.

Summers are getting hotter and hotter, and it’s impacting Americans’ health. From May to September in 2023, amid record-breaking temperatures, there was a significant increase in emergency department visits for heat-related illness, according to a report from the CDC.

Now, the agency is launching a new Heat and Health Initiative to improve people’s ability to stay safe during heat events.

The CDC announced the new initiative on Monday in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS). It features three resources designed to offer proactive actions people can take to protect themselves in extreme heat.

“Extreme heat makes your body have to work harder to stay at a normal temperature and if it cannot meet the need, the body temperature gets too high,” Adriana Glenn, Ph.D., an associate professor at the GW School of Nursing, tells Healthnews. “When the body temperature is too high, the individual [may] experience organ damage including brain injury, and [it] could lead to death if they are not treated promptly.”

Glenn says some of the other dangers of extreme heat include dehydration, cardiovascular stress, respiratory issues, and exacerbation of social inequities.

The first resource created for the new initiative is the HeatRisk Forecast Tool, developed by both CDC and NOAA, which provides a seven-day heat forecast that specifies when temperatures may reach levels that could harm your health. The tool uses a five-level scale to indicate how risky the heat level is in a specific area, and each level uses a color and number to represent risks from heat exposure.

The CDC’s HeatRisk Dashboard, the second tool created for the initiative, integrates the HeatRisk Forecast Tool data with other information — such as details on local air quality — to inform the public on steps they can take to protect themselves when temperatures are high and could harm their health. It gives people access to important heat and health information in an easy-to-use, intuitive, mobile-friendly interface.

The final resource is newly developed CDC clinical guidance to help healthcare professionals keep at-risk individuals safe by talking to their patients about how to stay safe where they live, learn, work, and play when it’s hot.

Disproportionate effects on vulnerable communities

Jason Douglas, Ph.D., the vice chair and an associate professor of Health, Society, & Behavior at UC Irvine Program in Public Health, tells Healthnews that as climate change continues to advance, we are seeing increasing heat-related health risks, particularly in underserved communities.

“For example, in the Los Angeles context, residents from underserved communities are experiencing heat-related health disparities such as heat exhaustion and cardiovascular-related impacts as a result of climate change and inequitable access to heat protective environments like green space, cooling centers, shade infrastructure, etc,” he says.

According to the CDC, hot weather conditions can affect anyone, but specific populations may be more vulnerable to the effects, including older people, children and adolescents, persons with preexisting health conditions, pregnant women, outdoor workers, those with limited access to cooling resources, and individuals living in low-income communities.

Exceptionally hot conditions can also increase the demand for medical services and strain health systems.

“The CDC's new Heat and Health Initiative stands to provide information and data for decision-makers and planners to direct life saving resources to communities that bear a disproportionate burden of heat related risk,” Douglas says.

He adds: “This initiative also equips community residents with information to identify heat risk within their neighborhoods. The tools that are provided to clinicians will help them understand heat related impacts and how to partner with their patients to reduce those impacts. Promisingly, the CDC's clinical guidance has the potential to transform the standard of care.”

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