Heat Stroke Risk Rises With Energy Woes. Part 1

The government is concerned that soaring utility costs in the West could cause another statistic to rise: heat-related health problems.

Energy problems in California and the Southwest could have a serious effect on heat-related injury and death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns. And with summer temperatures expected to be above normal in the Southwest, officials are gearing up to protect senior citizens and the very young.

The agency has posted a heat fact sheet on its Web site, says Alden Henderson, a health scientist with the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. “The key issue we wanted to get out to people is that they should get to air-conditioned rooms” when the mercury rises, he says.

But, he adds, “If there’s a brownout and you’re without air conditioning for a few hours, it’s not going to be much of a problem.”

“The heat is certainly is a big problem here,” says G.G. Crawley, deputy director of San Bernardino County’s department of Aging and Adult Services in San Bernardino, Calif. “It gets extremely hot out here — in some areas 110 to 120 degrees — given that a large percentage of the county is high desert.”

Although there have been no senior deaths because of heat exposure this year, Crawley says, a child died after being left in a hot car for a short time.

“And I don’t know if anyone died of heat exposure last year, but we are still very concerned about it, especially with the high cost of utilities,” Crawley adds. “We had unseasonably cold weather this winter, and our seniors complained that costs were extremely high and because of that they could not afford to pay their utilities. And in some cases, those utilities were turned off.”

Those high energy bills have officials in San Bernardino County concerned that seniors will turn off their air conditioning this summer. “It’s often a choice between eating, buying generic prescription drugs or keeping the air conditioning on,” Crawley says.

Crawley says San Bernardino County put together a publication to alert senior citizens, caregivers, and relatives on what kind of clothes to wear, what kinds of food to eat, and where to go if heat becomes a problem.

“What we advise people to do, if they need to cut back on their utility costs, and they can get up and about, is to go to what we call cooling centers — libraries, malls and senior citizens [centers], where there is air conditioning.

“But when they’re homebound, there’s not much we can do,” Crawley adds. “We’ve been trying to make providers and caregivers and relatives aware of what to do.”