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What extreme heat means for our long term health


Some 60 million Americans are facing triple-digit temperatures today as extreme heat blankets much of the country. And as these baking temperatures become more common due to climate change, what does that mean for our long-term health? Here to help us answer that question is Dr. Ari Bernstein of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Hi, Dr. Bernstein.

ARI BERNSTEIN: Hi, Juana. How are you?

SUMMERS: I am well, although it is very warm here in Washington, where we are. I want to start by asking you, from a physiological perspective, how does the extreme heat like the temperatures that we are seeing and feeling today affect the human body?

BERNSTEIN: It affects it in several ways. One is it makes us sweat more, and that can make us dehydrated. And our organs don't really like being dehydrated. It can also just directly create more heat in the body. And when, you know, our body gets too hot, things don't work normally. You know, we're designed to regulate our temperature. And if there's too much heat outside and our body's ability to dissipate heat can't deal, the body temperature rises. And that makes our hearts and our lungs and our brains and even our kidneys and other organs not work well. And so what we see as a consequence of those things is certainly people who have existing heart problems, lung problems, kidney problems, even mental health issues - they get sicker. And even for people who are in generally good health, the heat can be really dangerous if we don't pay attention.

SUMMERS: Based on your research and what you have seen, are different sorts of people more often exposed to extreme heat? Are there differences along, say, race and class and age lines?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, you can't talk about any issue related to the environment where you don't see disparities. So we know that communities of color, particularly Black Americans and Hispanic Americans, live in parts of cities that are much warmer than surrounding areas because they lack greenspace. And that is a direct consequence of redlining, which was codified by our government going back to the 1940s. It's no longer legal, of course, to do that, but the consequences in terms of heat exposure are real. And to be clear, the warming that has occurred in those communities because they are paved over and have no greenspace is far more a result of that what we call heat island effect than from climate change. But because the warming has been so much because of how we have built our communities, that means we can reverse it. That means we can make great strides to preventing harm and to advancing health equity when we are strategic in how we think about transforming urban environments.

SUMMERS: You are a pediatrician, and your research looks at heat-related illnesses in young children. What should parents be watching for?

BERNSTEIN: The most important thing I can say to parents is heat, you know, risk is real. But it is not a reason to keep children from being outdoors. I think we need to balance what are immense benefits, you know, particularly in summer, of children getting out, exercising, doing all those things with being careful about temperatures that, as we know, as this current moment in time makes abundantly clear, are much higher than they have been.

And let me underscore that point. A child born in the United States today is probably going to experience something like four or five times as many dangerous heat waves than a child who was born in 1960. And that is because we have filled the atmosphere with greenhouse gases from largely burning fossil fuels. And so we have to recognize that we have to take climate action to protect our children's health. And that is - you know, we can certainly try and do our best to keep children safe when it does get too hot. But as a parent, as a pediatrician, I don't want us having to think every day of the summer whether it's safe for our kid to be outside because of the heat. And I don't think anyone else does, either.

SUMMERS: That is Dr. Ari Bernstein from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Thank you so much for joining us today.

BERNSTEIN: Thanks so much, Juana - great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.