By Annie Gallivan and Jim Morrill, MD, PhD
This summer has been full of alarming, record-breaking climate and weather events. We’ve seen wildfire smoke blanket the skies across the country, record-breaking global air and ocean temperatures, and flash floods here in New England. The extreme heat and extreme weather events – floods, hurricanes, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and more – have come at a high cost, both human and financial.
For many people, thinking about our changing climate and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events can lead to feelings of fear and despair. While the climate crisis is certainly cause for alarm, it can be beneficial to focus on things that you can do to keep yourself, your family, and your community safe.
Here are some suggestions to help prepare for and respond to extreme heat and extreme weather events:
1. Recognize the signs of heat-related illness.
Heat related illness can progress through several stages, including:
• Heat cramps—often involving stomach and limbs.
• Health exhaustion—with sweating, cold / clammy skin, faint / weak pulse, nausea, dizziness, headache, or fainting.
• Heat stroke—characterized by high body temperature (103 degrees Fahrenheit or above), hot, red, dry, or damp skin, faint pulse, dizziness, headache, nausea with vomiting, confusion, or fainting
If you are with someone who has signs of heat cramps or heat exhaustion, get to a cooler location, elevate their feet, loosen, or remove excess clothing, and administer sips of cool water every 15 minutes. If there is vomiting or other signs of heat stroke, call 911 to get immediate medical attention
2. Talk with your health care team about how extreme heat and the changing climate impacts your health.
Discussing topics like extreme heat, dangerous air quality levels, and flash floods with your providers can help you create a safety plan. Medical providers can offer information on how to monitor for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness, information about medications that might affect your body’s response to heat, and strategies for preventing any chronic health conditions from getting worse.
Our patients have benefited from safety planning and strategies including the following:
• Covering windows with drapes, shades, or foil-covered cardboard.
• Staying in air-conditioned places (libraries, grocery stores, homes) or in the shade.
• Wearing breathable, lightweight clothing.
• Using transportation programs during storms or days when it is dangerous to walk outside (The RIDE, Age Strong Shuttle, MassHealth PT1, or the MGB shuttles).
• Wearing a mask on poor air quality days.
• Avoiding strenuous or high-energy activities.
• Never leaving a child, adult, or animal inside a car on a warm day.
• Staying hydrated with a non-sugary beverage throughout the day.
3. Keep an eye out for extreme heat and extreme weather events.
The most widely used weather apps and websites provide detailed information that goes far beyond the air temperature. You can use the weather apps to keep track of things like the “feels like” or “real feel” temperature (which combines temperature, humidity, and wind into one index), the Air Quality Index, and alerts from the National Weather Services on extreme weather events.
As we make our way toward the end of August, we will likely begin seeing more named storms and hurricanes. According to the NOAA, the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season is between June 1 – November 30, with named hurricanes commonly occurring in August and September. You can sign up for the National Weather Services’ Emergency Alert Systems at Active Alerts (weather.gov) or call 211 for local information including state of emergencies, temporary shelters or cooling stations, disaster assistance, and more.
4. Spend time in cool spaces during extreme heat.
The best way to stay safe during extreme heat is to spend time in cool spaces. While we know that this is one of the most effective ways to prevent heat illness and exacerbation of chronic conditions, we are also aware that access to cool spaces is extremely limited for many members of our community.
Common spaces that are used for cooling include Boston Centers for Youth and Families, which are utilized as cooling centers during designated Heat Emergencies, air-conditioned spaces, cold showers, public pools and splash pads, and parks with substantial shade. As a community, we can also advocate for increased access to cool spaces and shaded areas throughout Charlestown and the surrounding areas.
5. Check in on each other and support the work of community organizations working to strengthen Charlestown’s climate resilience and safety.
During extreme heat and extreme weather events, we can all do our part to help keep ourselves and our community members safe. Some people can be more vulnerable to extreme heat, including young children, older adults, people with chronic illnesses, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, people who work outside, and people with substance use disorders.
One of the ways we can broaden our approach to improve the health and safety of our communities long-term is to get involved and amplify the work of community organizations who are working on climate resilience and safety. Consider getting involved with local organizations such as the Charlestown Coalition (at Charlestown Coalition – Advancing Communities, Transforming Lives) and its efforts to develop the Charlestown Peace Park or the Mystic River Watershed Association (at Mystic River Watershed Association | MyRWA | Boston), who are working to mitigate the effects of climate change in local urban communities, including work on developing Little Mystic Channel Park.
For more information, we recommend these useful sites:
• Climate Ready Boston
• MA 211
• SNAP Replacement Benefits
• Free online Harvard course “The Health Effects of Climate Change”
• CDC Heat-related Illness
Annie Gallivan and Jim Morrill, MD, PhD are with the MGH Charlestown HealthCare Center.