June 7, 2013

This story caught my attention because this week, I spent several days recovering from heat exhaustion, which is something I've never had (or even seen) in my life. I'd been out in 96-degree weather while my son loaded up my car for his move. And even though I was careful to drink lots of liquids, stayed in the shade or went into the air-conditioned coffee house (or my car), I became quite woozy and disoriented -- almost as if I were drunk. It lasted for two more days. It never even occurred to me I could get sick from the heat. If this kind of weather is the new normal for this summer, we should be prepared for it:

Think last summer was bad? You better get used to it, federal health officials warned Thursday. Climate change means hotter summers and more intense storms that could knock power out for days -- and kill people.

New data on heat-related deaths suggest that public health officials have been underestimating them, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

It’s an especially important message as summers get longer and hotter due to climate change, and as storms that can cause widespread blackouts become more common and more intense.

More than 7,200 people died from excess heat from 1999 to 2009, Ethel Taylor and colleagues at the CDC found. The latest numbers, part of the CDC’s weekly report in death and illness, list non-residents for the first time, a group that includes illegal immigrants, tourists, migrant workers and others. These groups suffer especially when it gets hot, Taylor says.

“About 15 percent of the heat-related deaths we have seen over 10 years are occurring in non-US residents,” Taylor told NBC News. This adds up to about 1,000 people.

The CDC is now trying to find out just who these people are and why they’re being killed disproportionately by heat. Forty percent of the deaths over the 10 years were in just three states – California, Arizona and Texas. They are all border states in the south with plenty of desert and agriculture, so the victims could be illegal immigrants who died trying to cross the border, farm workers, or rural poor. Taylor says it’s important to get more information about them.

Awareness of the dangers is important because longer, hotter and more extreme weather is here to stay, the CDC’s George Luber says.

“The most serious hurricanes are increasing in frequency….and that is driven by climate change,” Luber says.

Weather experts stress that it’s impossible to say whether any individual storm or heat wave was caused by climate change. But the patterns are clearly changing and that can certainly be attributed to climate change, Luber says. “The sheer magnitude of these weather events are a challenge to public health,” Luber says.

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