Summer heat and wellness checks

8/9/2018, 6 a.m.

We were a bit amused at first when a story hit our inbox recently with the title, “How to Build a DIY Air Conditioner in Minutes for Less Than $10.”

The article and accompanying video showed how to turn a Styrofoam ice chest filled with ice, two vent pipes typically used for clothes dryers and a small electric or battery-operated fan into a makeshift air conditioner.

It was intriguing at first, particularly if you’re into do-it-yourself projects or quirky life hacks, as they are called. 

But the article gave only light mention to the seriousness of heat-related illnesses, offering a figure from the National Weather Service that, on average, more than 130 people die each year from the heat.

We checked what we believe to be a better source — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and learned that the figure is much higher. According to the CDC, an average of 658 people succumb to extreme heat each year in the United States.

But that figure could be higher because, as the CDC information stated, heat-related deaths often are unrecognized or misclassified. And heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion, are not required to be reported to public health agencies.

The CDC also noted that increased health risks posed by heat waves — which the center classified as three or more days with the thermometer reaching at least 90 degrees — can be exacerbated by limited access to transportation, medical care and cooling centers.

At greatest risk are children under age 5, seniors age 65 and older, those who are overweight or have medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, the poor and those who are socially isolated, according to the CDC.

So we were not surprised by the center’s charts showing that heat-related deaths are highest among African-Americans and people of color.

We have been fortunate in Richmond that the usual sweltering summer heat was replaced recently by slightly cooler days filled with rain. But temperatures are soaring now to their typical August levels and may remain in the 90s or reach triple digits for days at a time.

We also are fortunate that the City of Richmond opens cooling stations in Downtown and South Side when temperatures or the heat index reach 95 degrees. The cooling stations offer a cooler indoor space for people to stay during critical daytime hours when it’s typically the hottest. Bottled water, but no food, is available.

Like the CDC, the city also suggests people go to a local library or visit a friend who has air-conditioning if they can’t get to a cooling shelter.

If you know someone who lives alone or who may fit into the higher risk category noted above, we urge you to check on them during the hot summer weather. A small act, such as a wellness check by phone or in person, may save someone’s life.

And with the availability of air conditioning at public spaces, such as malls, movie theaters and libraries, you can leave the DIY air conditioner for when the electrical power goes out for several hours or days following a summer storm or you just want to put your craft skills to use.