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Extreme Heat Increases Health Risks for Vulnerable Populations

July 29, 2016—With 2016 on record as the warmest year in the United States since record-keeping began in 1880, and the remainder of the year looking to follow suit, LIHEAP personnel are trying to help vulnerable populations during this summer’s nationwide extreme heat event. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extreme heat events, or heat waves, are one of the most deadly extreme weather events in the United States—killing an average of 618 people in the U.S. per year. Vulnerable households, those with elderly, infirmed, or very young children as members, are most at-risk.

Most heat-related deaths, according to a 2013 research article published by the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Environmental Health Perspectives, occur in cities and are influenced by the neighborhoods in which low-income residents live. Concrete and asphalt in cities play a role in absorbing and keeping in the heat, often known as “heat islands.” The study found that neighborhoods with the highest heat vulnerability were clustered within the inner cores of the largest cities, and along industrial corridors. Additionally, many households in high crime areas, most often found in low-income neighborhoods in inner cities, keep their windows shut for safety, and do not benefit from any outside airflow. Elderly and infirmed residents, in these cases, can often become socially isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, further putting them at risk.

Cooling centers then, according to the NIH report, become a last resort refuge for vulnerable households. Last week, the Office of Community Services (OCS) issued a Dear Colleague Letter informing LIHEAPs that they have the ability and opportunity to make adjustments to their programs now, and throughout the rest of the summer, to mitigate the effects of the heat. According to OCS, LIHEAP directors may adjust policies in their annual plans and, if the changes are significant, may resubmit the revised Fiscal Year 2016 plan within a “reasonable amount of time after implementing the policy change(s).”

Examples OCS gave on ways LIHEAPs could change their programs included establishing cooling centers; loaning or giving away air conditioning units or fans; providing higher crisis or cooling benefit payments; providing targeted outreach to households that are at greatest risk; and providing education to applicants on how to keep cool.

Currently, 23 states, including the District of Columbia, and 74 tribes have indicated that they have set aside funds for a cooling component in their Fiscal Year 2016 LIHEAP plans.

Sources: Office of Community Services, LIHEAP Clearinghouse, NASA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Health