Weather events such as heat waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, flooding, etc., can have both direct and indirect effects on human health and the environment. Scientists look at historical weather patterns related to temperature, precipitation, wind, etc., as well as use predictive models to study the dynamics of the weather and climate to forecast future patterns.
There is an important difference between "weather" and "climate." "Weather" is what is happening in a specific place in the atmosphere on a given day. "Climate" is looking at weather patterns over a period of time. A saying among meteorologists is that "climate is what you expect, weather is what you get." As to whether or not human activities are influencing climate is a matter of global debate. However, scientific data shows that the Earth's climate is changing and is currently in a warming trend. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the average global temperature has increased about 1.4º Fahrenheit (0.8º Celsius) since 1880.
How Does Heat Impact Health?
Heat can impact people in different ways depending on several factors including the vulnerability of exposed populations (see health effects associated with heat). For example, a person's age and pre-existing health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes may increase the risk of suffering from heat-related health illnesses. Certain medications may result in dehydration thus making individuals more susceptible to suffering from a heat-related illness.
Socio-economic factors, such as the ability to afford air conditioning or adequate insulation, can also impact vulnerability and may leave some residents at risk of exposure to extreme temperatures. Individuals with limited resources are more likely to live in substandard housing which may expose them to higher levels of environmental hazards. They may also have limited access to health care to help maintain good health and may not have the ability to receive medical attention when needed.
Heat can also have a direct or indirect impact on human health. For example, heat may have a direct effect of causing a heat related rash or even a life threatening heat stroke; or an indirect effect such as causing a heat wave that increases the demand for electricity which uses more fossil fuels. This additional fossil fuel usage can generate more airborne particulates into the environment and result in negative health effects associated with breathing the additional pollution. Heat may also affect the environment by increasing ground-level ozone concentrations which in turn may cause lung damage and increase the severity of asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has selected some indicators that result from extreme heat events to be tracked by the Environmental Public Health Tracking (EPHT) program. Data is reported when heat is either the main cause or a contributing factor for the following reportable measures: annual number of emergency department (ED) and hospitalization visits.
The focus of this summary report is on the counties in South Carolina which are experiencing some of the most frequent top-tier annual rate (adjusted for patient's age*) of admissions relative to heat related injury hospitalizations and ED visits from 2000 - 2012 during the months of May - September.
*Age adjusted rates adjust for the influence of a patient's age on the results. In other words, to better determine if there is an environmental factor affecting the rate, age (which is an independent risk factor for a heat related injury) needs to be ruled out so that any differences noted in county rates are not attributable to age.
Utilizing hospitalization and ED visits data acquired from South Carolina's Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, the following was noted:
Hampton County (rate of ED Visits per 100,000 population)
Chester County (rate of Hospitalizations per 100,000 population)
What Do These Results Mean?
Interpreting results should be done with caution and within the context of the data (see "Climate and Health" under Dataset Details on our SC EPHT website at http://www.dhec.sc.gov/Health/SCPublicHealthStatisicsMaps/EnvironmentalPublicHealthTracking/Metadata/). While some heat injuries (e.g., heat stroke), can be a direct result of excessive temperatures, other health problems can be exasperated indirectly (e.g., more difficulties in breathing due to an increased demand for electricity to cool resulting in more air pollution from the extra burning of fossil fuels.
Putting Results into Action
These results have allowed SC EPHT to provide this summary of the data and information to help with prevention, education, and other outreach efforts to stress the importance of reducing your exposure to heat related injury causing events.
Want to Know More?
If you want to obtain a detailed copy of the associated hospitalization and ED visits' results, please contact Chris Finney, Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office (Health and Demographics) at (803) 898-9969 or by email (Chris.Finneyatrfa.sc.gov).
If you want to know more about climate and health in our state, please visit SC EPHT's website here Climate and Health.