07/06/2012 06:25 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

Heat Waves Hardest On Minority Communities, Experts Say

Torrid temperatures aren't uncommon this time of year, but record-breaking levels of heat and humidity are and they're expected to sweep through most of the country over the next few weeks.

For most, it simply means cranking up the A/C and staying hydrated throughout the day, but for many minorities living in urban centers like Chicago and Detroit, and places where lack of air conditioning access, trees, and green space are the norm, it represents an ongoing challenge to maintain good health.

In May, researchers at the Texas Health Institute released a report suggesting that people living in communities of color in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of hurricanes, droughts and oppressive heat.

The result, they say, is increased and exacerbated incidence of pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and asthma, which are already prevalent among minority groups.

According to the report, almost one in five adults self-reported his or her health status as "poor," a condition that, along with obesity, uninsurance and a low rate of primary care providers, may further disadvantage populations during or after extreme weather events or in the face of environmental challenges.

For many, environmental changes are precisely where the problem and the solution lie.

Steve Vavrus, a senior scientist in the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that while more research needs to be done, unusual conditions -- including last winter's ranking as the fourth-warmest in the U.S.; spring turning out to be the warmest since record-keeping began in 1895; and April marking the end of the warmest 12-month period in U.S. history -- are harbingers of what's to come if greenhouse warming persists.

Vavrus' colleague Tracey Holloway says that is not good news for human health and even more of a problem for particularly sensitive groups. According to Holloway, breathing ozone can damage lungs and worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Particulate air pollutants can also affect a person's lungs and heart.

"Over the past few weeks, both ozone and particulate matter have increased across much of the country, with the Air Quality Index registering levels deemed 'unhealthy' or 'unhealthy for sensitive groups,'" Holloway said in a release. "In the last week of June, moderate or unhealthy air covered a third to half of the continental U.S."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that climate change will cause an additional 2,000 to 5,000 heat-related deaths annually by 2050 and offer these tips about how to ward off its effects.

  • Drink more fluids (nonalcoholic), regardless of your activity level. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Warning: If your doctor generally limits the amount of fluid you drink or has you on water pills, ask him how much you should drink while the weather is hot.
  • Don’t drink liquids that contain alcohol or large amounts of sugar–these actually cause you to lose more body fluid. Also, avoid very cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps.
  • Stay indoors and, if at all possible, stay in an air-conditioned place. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library–even a few hours spent in air conditioning can help your body stay cooler when you go back into the heat. Call your local health department to see if there are any heat-relief shelters in your area.
  • Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, fans will not prevent heat-related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath, or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • NEVER leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle.
  • Although any one at any time can suffer from heat-related illness, some people are at greater risk than others. Check regularly on infants and young children; people aged 65 or older; people who have a mental illness; and those who are physically ill, especially with heart disease or high blood pressure.
  • Visit adults at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Infants and young children, of course, need much more frequent watching.
    If you must be out in the heat:
  • Limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours.
  • Cut down on exercise. If you must exercise, drink two to four glasses of cool, nonalcoholic fluids each hour. A sports beverage can replace the salt and minerals you lose in sweat. Warning: If you are on a low-salt diet, talk with your doctor before drinking a sports beverage. Remember the warning in the first “tip” (above), too.
  • Try to rest often in shady areas.
  • Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (also keeps you cooler) and sunglasses and by putting on sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher (the most effective products say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels).