Staying cool and safe in the heat may be challenging over the next few days. Here, two UBC experts share some tips and practices for warm weather safety.
Dr. Sarah Henderson is an associate professor of population and public health at UBC, and the scientific director of environmental health at the BC Centre for Disease Control. She researches the impacts of air pollution and extreme weather events. Dr. Adam Rysanek is an assistant professor of environmental systems at UBC, and a healthy buildings expert who is working on alternative means of cooling indoor and outdoor spaces without relying on traditional air conditioning.
What are the challenges and risks associated with extreme heat?
Henderson: The primary risk associated with extreme hot weather is overheating, which can lead to heat stroke. When the external temperature is high, the body must work much harder to keep the core temperature at 37 degrees. Certain groups are at higher risk of overheating, including infants and children, older adults, outdoor workers, and anyone whose health is compromised.
Rysanek: To be frank, for a generation we’ve abandoned the design and construction of buildings that have some natural resiliency to extreme heat. Simultaneously, we haven’t taken up “indoor cooling” as an essential building service. A heat wave will always be a big challenge for a city of glass, but recurring climate change-induced heat waves is an emergent public health risk that requires us to change how we renovate and design new buildings.
How can people ensure safety and minimize discomfort?
Henderson: The best way to protect yourself during hot weather is to help your body stay cool. Drink plenty of water—even more than you think you need. Your body needs to be well-hydrated to produce sweat. Listen to your body at all times. Slow down and cool down if you are feeling unwell.
Seek emergency care for symptoms of heat stroke such as flushed, dry skin, confusion or fainting. The BC CDC has some good resources on hot weather safety. Wear loose, breathable clothing. Seek shady, breezy places outdoors, especially those near to natural water sources or water features. Spend time in air-conditioned spaces if you can, especially during the hottest hours of the day, and limit the use of stoves and ovens to reduce the amount of heat generated indoors.
Rysanek: Hot weather on the West Coast is usually dry, which means that water can evaporate easily and that’s good news! When sweat or water evaporates off your skin, it cools your skin in the process. This is the primary mechanism that your body has for cooling itself. Some people may be familiar with the technique of blowing a fan over a bowl of cold ice water. Another tip is to put on a damp shirt or apply a wet cloth to your skin, and then blow a fan over you. When this artificial sweat evaporates, you’ll get a real cooling boost beyond just the feeling of the cold water on your skin. Outdoors, wear a hat or stay in the shade. Indoors, we still want to be mindful of balancing air quality vs the heat, and everyone’s situation is different.
What else do we need to know?
Henderson: Do not allow stigma to keep people out of cool spaces or to prevent offering assistance—marginally housed people have died in Vancouver during previous extreme hot weather events. Check on people who are chronically ill or live alone and may need help in the hot weather. And never leave children or animals in a parked car—temperatures can rise rapidly in enclosed vehicles.
Rysanek: By all means take it easy and do what you can to keep your metabolism low and slow. If you’re not a marathon runner, this is not the weekend to do your first practice.