Cool Kids: Building Resilience Against the Heat

Just as we seem to be getting a little relief from high gas prices, high temperatures are rolling across the country. The high heat comes as teens start preseason sports practice and kids of all ages visit pools and beaches.

As I wrote in April’s post, outdoor activities like these are good for our health and well-being. Now that it’s August, we must pay extra attention to the risks these activities pose. High temperatures, especially heat waves, can lead to illness and accidents among children and young adults. Keeping them safe requires taking basic steps at home and outside as well as large-scale projects in our communities, country and around the world.

Read on to learn how heat impacts children, what communities are doing to lower temperatures, and why combatting heat is critical to America’s next generation.

Heat Impacts Children Differently, May Cause Rise in ER Visits

As any pediatrician will tell you, children are not miniature adults. Their bodies are still developing and are more vulnerable to heat illness. For example, children sweat at a lower rate and begin sweating at a higher temperature than adults. They also produce more heat relative to their body weight. A recent study analyzed more than 3 million ER visits to children’s hospitals in 27 states from May to September. The authors found “that hotter days were associated with higher relative risks of ER visits for all causes.”

As a trauma surgeon, I learned early in my training that visits to a pediatric trauma center increase markedly in summer months. We saw the largest increases in conditions directly related to temperature, but we also saw a rise in admissions from all causes. If one extrapolates these findings to the level of temperature increases predicted by some global warming models, the impact on child health could be profound.

The dangers of high temperatures aren’t limited to outdoor environments. Heat waves mean changes in our routines and behaviors as we try to cool off. For example, more people open windows in the heat, which, as first responders interviewed by USA Today point out, increases the likelihood that children will fall out of them. Preventative actions include moving furniture away from windows and using window locks.

Summer also means more water play, swimming and boating. CDC researcher Merianne Spence explains that unintentional drowning deaths peak in the summer and are a leading cause of deaths caused by injury among children.

Ways to Cool Down, From the Low-Tech to the High-Tech

Whether cooling off at a neighborhood splash pad, jumping into a lake or running into the ocean, water activities are a time-honored way to enjoy the outdoors and cool off. In the summer of 1939, as the A.I. duPont Institute was nearing completion, children with orthopedic conditions swam and received treatment at the duPont family’s retreat in Cherry Island, Maryland. But today, the prevalence of heat-absorbing surfaces makes heat waves increasingly dangerous. When you add outdated infrastructure, like old schools and inefficient buildings, the reality is that many American children are learning, living and playing in spaces that are simply too hot.

Here are some examples of why this is happening:

Cities and communities around the United States — and the world — are working to address these issues. One approach is to increase the number of trees and amount of vegetation, which can significantly reduce temperatures through shade and evapotranspiration while improving air quality, noise reduction and stormwater management. Medellín, Colombia has received international recognition for its successful use of trees to lower temperatures and outdoor spaces for residents.

Another approach is using “cool roofing” material or painting roofs light colors. A team at Purdue University has developed a paint that reflects 98.1% of sunlight, which could reduce the need for air conditioning and energy costs when applied to roofs. Researchers expect the paint to be publicly available within a few years.

Combating Extreme Heat Is Key to a Healthy Next Generation

Although heat waves aren’t new to this century, we are experiencing more and more days of extreme heat. In fact, extreme heat causes more weather-related deaths in the United States in an average year than tornadoes, flooding or other weather-related hazards.

Phoenix, Arizona, America’s hottest city, has created an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation to reduce the number of heat-related deaths and illnesses. Of course, the United States is not alone in combatting rising temperatures and heat-related deaths. Seville, Spain, has started naming heat waves, putting them on par with weather events like hurricanes (in case you’re wondering, the first named heat wave was Zoe, which brought temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit to Seville last month).

As Eric Klinenburg explains in his analysis of the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave, the weather was only part of the story. The key to understanding who succumbed and why was understanding the significance of the everyday conditions in which people lived and worked.

Where Do We Go From Here?

From the color of our roofs to the size of neighborhood parks, our surroundings can make us more vulnerable — or more resilient — to extreme events and natural disasters. Relying on air conditioning to keep our kids safe and in school is a short-term solution that contributes to the earth’s heat problem. I believe, though, that the same American ingenuity and determination that led to the invention of air-conditioning in the early 1900s will lead to even larger-scale methods for keeping cool and staying healthy in the late summer months. Nothing is of a larger scale than outer space, and that’s exactly where scientists at Stanford are trying to send excess heat using radiative panels.

Reducing the rising number of historically hot days requires more than “out of this world" scientific innovation. Our resilience as a nation and as a species depends largely on our surroundings and everyday actions. To a greater degree than any other species on the planet, humans can construct and design the spaces around us — and adjust our behaviors to survive and thrive. And it all starts with our children, homes and communities.

With that in mind, here are three resources to help you and the children in your life stay cool and safe this summer:

  • Find out what your community is doing to combat heat.
  • High temperatures can lead to heat cramps, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion among children and young adults. You can learn more about each and what to do if someone shows symptoms.
  • Learn more about water safety and kids by registering for this free webinar on August 23, 2022.
R. Lawrence Moss, MD, FACS, FAAP, President and Chief Executive Officer

About Dr. Moss

R. Lawrence Moss, MD, FACS, FAAP is president and CEO of Nemours Children’s Health. Dr. Moss will write monthly in this space about how children’s hospitals can address the social determinants of health and create the healthiest generations of children.