Sandia Mountains, Photo by Jessica-Marie Barriere

 "But it's a dry heat..."

Many residents and visitors to the desert Southwest think that relative humidities are low, and that they do not need to worry about heat stress. While high relative humidities can certainly increase the adverse effects of heat on the human body, the hottest of days in New Mexico can result in numerous health issues.

So far in 2013 there have been nine deaths of children unattended in vehicles; two which have been confirmed as heatstroke and seven which, based upon the circumstances, are most likely heatstroke (2013 list).  Last year there were at least thirty-two deaths of children (see 2012 list) due to hyperthermia (heatstroke) after being left in or having gained access to hot cars, trucks, vans and SUV's, including a young child in Albuquerque.  Since 1998 there have been at least 560 documented cases of heatstroke deaths of children in vehicles.  This study shows that these incidents can occur on days with relatively mild (i.e., ~ 70 degrees F) temperatures and that vehicles can reach life-threatening temperatures very rapidly.

All of these tragic deaths are preventable. To help bring awareness to this issue, the NWS is using the slogan "Beat the Heat, Check the Backseat" to remind people to remember to check for small children in a car seat, and to never leave children unattended in a vehicle, even for a few moments.

The following are basic safety recommendations:

  • Never Leave a child unattended in a vehicle. Not even for a minute!
  • If you see a child unattended in a hot vehicle, call 9-1-1 immediately!
  • Be sure that all occupants leave the vehicle when unloading. Don't overlook sleeping babies.
  • Always lock your car and ensure children do not have access to keys or remote entry devices.
  • If a child is missing, check the car first, including the trunk.
  • Teach your children that vehicles are never to be used as a play area.
  • If a child is missing, ALWAYS CHECK THE CAR FIRST!
  • Keep a stuffed animal in the carseat. When the child is put in the seat, place the animal in the front with the driver.
  • Or, place your purse or briefcase in the back seat as a reminder that you have your child in the car.
  • Make "look before you leave" a routine whenever you get out of the car.
  • Ensure your child care provider will call you if your child does not show up for school.
Pets are family, too! Never leave them in a vehicle during the summer.

SUNBURN: Redness and pain. In severe cases swelling of skin, blisters, fever, headaches. First Aid: Ointments for mild cases if blisters appear and do not break. If breaking occurs, apply dry sterile dressing. Serious, extensive cases should be seen by physician.

HEAT CRAMPS: Painful spasms usually in muscles of legs and abdomen possible. Heavy sweating. First Aid: Firm pressure on cramping muscles, or gentle massage to relieve spasm. Give sips of water. If nausea occurs, discontinue use.

HEAT EXHAUSTION: Heavy sweating, weakness, skin cold, pale and clammy. Pulse thready (scarcely perceptible). Normal temperature possible. Fainting and vomiting. First Aid: Get victim out of sun. Lay down and loosen clothing. Apply cool, wet cloths. Fan or move victim to air conditioned room. Sips of water. If nausea occurs, discontinue use. If vomiting continues, seek immediate medical attention.

HEAT STROKE (or sunstroke): High body temperature (106° F. or higher). Hot dry skin. Rapid and strong pulse. Possible unconsciousness. First Aid: HEAT STROKE IS A SEVERE MEDICAL EMERGENCY. SUMMON EMERGENCY MEDICAL ASSISTANCE OR GET THE VICTIM TO A HOSPITAL IMMEDIATELY. DELAY CAN BE FATAL. Move the victim to a cooler environment Reduce body temperature with cold bath or sponging. Use extreme caution. Remove clothing, use fans and air conditioners. If temperature rises again, repeat process. Do not give fluids. Persons on salt restrictive diets should consult a physician before increasing their salt intake.

 

 Heat Stress Safety:

  • Drink plenty of water. It is very easy to become dehydrated in our desert climate without realizing it.
  • Avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages. Both increase stress on the body and actually accelerate dehydration.
  • Wear light, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Stay out of the sun.
  • Shift strenuous outdoor activities too cooler parts of the day, especially during the early morning.
  • Check on elderly friends, neighbors and family often. Elders are generally more susceptible to heat-related illness.
  • Take advantage of air conditioning when possible. Many homes in New Mexico still use evaporative cooling (swamp coolers) which are much less effective during the monsoon.
  • If you, or someone you're with, begins to feel tired and flushed and begin to sweat excessively, you may be suffering from heat exhaustion. Stop any strenuous activities immediately, drink more water, and find a cool place to rest.
  • If someone becomes disoriented, stops sweating, has hot dry skin, or even worse, passes out, that person is probably experiencing heat stroke - a serious medical condition. Call 911 immediately! If possible, move them to a cooler location.
  • Provide plenty of water and shade for pets.

 

If the day is forecast to be exceptionally hot, or to have a dangerously high heat index, restrict your activity. Chances are that the next day will likely be safer. However, monitor NWS forecasts for extended periods of high heat as these can be particulary hazardous.

 

 

 

Heat stress is particularly dangerous for the elderly, the very young, and any one with a compromised pulmonary condition.  However, many people are not aware of the extreme heat stress environment that can be created by the combination of an unventilated parked car and direct sunlight. The interior of a car will heat rapidly when in direct sun due to the "greenhouse affect." Solar radiation is not blocked by the glass windows and readily heats the car interior, but radiation generated by the warming car is not able to pass through the windows. Recent research studies focused on vehicle-related hyperthermia deaths have produced information to help public officials and child safety advocates. The table below is an example, and depicts the maximum interior vehical temperature increases for various time intervals as was determined by compiling a number of studies.  The actual temperature change will depend on time of day, cloudinsess and ventilation, but it is important to note that in just 10 minutes, it is possible for the temperature within a car in direct sunlight to warm 22 degrees F.

table of maximum interior vehicle air temperature

Source: Grundstein et al. BAMS 2010

The heat index (HI) is an index that combines air temperature and relative humidity in an attempt to determine the human-perceived equivalent temperature — how hot it feels, termed the felt or apparent air temperature. The human body normally cools itself by perspiration, or sweating, which evaporates and carries heat away from the body. However, when the relative humidity is high, the evaporation rate is reduced, so heat is removed from the body at a lower rate causing it to retain more heat than it would in dry air. Measurements have been taken based on subjective descriptions of how hot subjects feel for a given temperature and humidity, allowing an index to be made which corresponds a temperature and humidity combination to a higher temperature in drier air. The National Weather Service uses relative humidity and dry bulb temperature to produce the "apparent temperature" or the temperature the body "feels". This is known as the heat index and is illustrated in the table below. Note that this chart is based upon shady, light wind conditions - direct sun can increase your risk.

 

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