A study published today in the journal Environmental Research provides new, local details on the health effects of hot weather on Rhode Islanders and has prompted the National Weather Service (NWS) Northeast Region to update its heat advisory policy.
According to study authors, including Julia Gold, the Manager of the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH)'s Climate Change and Health Program, hospital emergency department visits and deaths from all causes in Rhode Island, Maine, and New Hampshire increased by 7.5% and 5.1% respectively on days when the heat index reached 95 degrees, as compared to days with a maximum heat index of 75 degrees. The heat index is a combined measure of heat and humidity that quantifies how the weather feels. The study also found that people with pre-existing health conditions in the three states, such as asthma, heart disease, and kidney problems, fared much worse on days when the heat index reaches 95 degrees.
The research, which study authors previously shared with officials at the NWS New England and Regional offices, prompted the NWS Northeast Region to begin issuing heat advisories when the heat index is forecast to reach 95 degrees for any amount of time on two or more consecutive days or 100 degrees for any amount of time on a single day. The previous NWS regional threshold was a maximum daily heat index of 100 for 2 or more consecutive hours. This change was made in December, 2016.
"Like most public health issues, climate change and extreme heat do not affect all communities equally. In addition to Rhode Islanders with pre-existing health conditions, other vulnerable populations include the elderly, people who work outdoors, and people who live in lower income communities," said Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH. "As we prepare for and respond to climate change statewide, it is essential that we continue to support this kind of research that allows us to identify burdens and trends and to take specific steps to ensure that everyone in Rhode Island has an equal opportunity to be healthy and safe."
The study, Heat-related morbidity and mortality in New England: Evidence for local policy, was led by Gregory Wellenius from the Brown University School of Public Health. In addition to the Manager of RIDOH's Climate Change and Health Program, the study was co-authored by state public health officials in Maine and New Hampshire. Rhode Island data from 1999 to 2012 were analyzed in the study. The data were extracted from hospital discharge and vital statistics databases.
The study is the first that documents the relationship between heat and health in New England. Nationally, more people die during bouts of extreme heat than from any other type of weather event.
During an average Rhode Island summer, the heat index reaches 90 degrees on 10 days. Climate Solutions New England, an organization that promotes energy self-reliance and weather resilience, predicts that between 2020 and 2099 Rhode Island will experience 13-44 more days above 90 degrees than what would be expected using the current 10-day-a-year average.
Weather-related emergency department visits begin well before the heat advisory threshold is met, according to NSW. For that reason, NWS recommends the use of early, enhanced safety messaging to the public.
In response to that recommendation and the data being made public today, RIDOH has worked to develop new partnerships, communication tools, and outreach strategies. In April, RIDOH and NWS co-hosted an event to share the research of the Northeast Regional Heat Collaborative and explain the new heat advisory policy for New England. (The Northeast Regional Heat Collaborative incudes officials from Brown University and the public health departments in Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, although Vermont data was not analyzed in the study being published today.) Professionals from each New England state participated, including news meteorologists, emergency management professionals, public health officials, and staff from local, regional, and federal agencies.
To stay healthy and safe during extreme heat, people should:
Stay out of the direct sun. Seek shaded or air conditioned areas such as libraries or malls; Drink plenty of fluids (avoid alcohol and caffeine); Schedule outdoor events early in the morning when it's cooler; Pace yourself when you exercise; Wear light-colored, light-weight clothing. Use hats with brims and sunscreen (SPF 30 or more) for more protection; Check on friends, family, and neighbors.