Transcript of Get Ready Report Podcast, episode 39

This is the Get Ready Report, coming to you from Washington, D.C. In this episode, “Climate Change: What You Need to Know to Get Ready for Summer,” we interview Dr. Kim Knowlton, senior scientist of the National Resources Defense Council’s  Health and Environment Program as well as  co-deputy director of  NRDC’s Science Center. Dr. Knowlton is also a clinical professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and a member of the American Public Health Association’s Environment Section. She is interviewed by Get Ready team member Lavanya Gupta.

Alex, thank you so much for joining us for this interview. To start off, can you please tell us about FEMA’s National Youth Preparedness Council and what your role is as a member?
FEMA's National Youth Preparedness Council was developed as a strategy to engage youth; you know, we want to engage youth today so that generations later can be prepared. And now we have a big part in th

So my first question for you is that The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, recently reported that July 2012 was the hottest month on record and that May 2014 was the hottest May ever. How can we prepare ourselves against heat-related illnesses like heat stroke, heat exhaustion and other effects?

That’s right, Lavanya. As you said it, 2012 was not only the hottest July, it was the hottest year ever recorded in the lower 48 states of the United States and that’s since record keeping began back in 1895. So you’re pointing to a really important point. We know that we’re connecting the dots between climate change and health because it’s quite clear that climate change is fueling some of the key types of extreme weather events that we’re seeing, and that includes heat waves. And that’s just not in the future, with place and time distance. That’s happening right here and now. But the good news there’s lots that we can do to protect ourselves and prepare for climate change and those heat waves. It’s totally vital to do that because heat-related mortality and illnesses should be preventable. A few things that we can do is mainly to drink water, to get cool and stay cool, and to check on our health and watch for the signs and symptoms of some of those heat-related illnesses. And then to do the same for our friends and neighbors, because it’s not just the heat, it’s the vulnerability. So many of us are vulnerable to heat, from older people — age 65 and older — to the very young kids. And a number of us who have medical conditions like (of the) heart or lung or other illnesses that make us more vulnerable to heat. So when we help ourselves to get cool and drink plenty of water, to watch for the signs of our health and help others to do that, we’re putting ourselves in a great place to be prepared for climate change in the future and heat waves right now.

That’s great. So I’m just curious — in New York and at the NRDC, any tips or tricks that you and your colleague share just to remind one another on how to stay cool during this very, very hot summer?

Absolutely, we really do. For one thing, we are fortunate to be in a city where there’s a great public system to let people know, like for me and my colleagues, when a heat wave is approaching; and there’s a Notify NYC, it’s like text alert that you sign-up for. When we hear that it’s going to be hot, as it has been quite a bit this summer, we do a few things. For one, as adults we try to slow down a little bit. You know, perhaps don’t run or limit or restrict our activities, just enough so that we’re really not putting ourselves in a place where we are vulnerable for some of that exertion-related heat illnesses. I might reschedule some of the most strenuous, kind of outdoor danger activities or sports that I was planning to do with friends until the coolest part of the day or maybe even a cooler day all together. That’s one thing. A lot of us have children. I have a dog who I adore. We are very mindful to never leave our kids or our pets in parked vehicles or in places on those hot days where they could be at risk. Our kids and our pets really rely on us to do the right thing by them. It’s really important to use the shade and to use air-conditioning for all that it does in terms of using a lot of energy; air-conditioning confers great benefits to people’s health on the hottest day. And the third thing is that something that we might not think about so much: Don’t get a bad sunburn. It makes your body less able to dissipate heat and sort of preserving our body’s ability to do what it naturally does: to thermoregulate, as it’s called, and cool down when it’s really hot outdoors. It’s something we really want to preserve. So that’s why we want to also recheck friends and neighbors who might be older or have a the kind of illnesses that make it harder for their bodies to really thermoregulate and keep nice and cool.

That’s great. Those are some great tips on how to stay safe in hot weather. That leads me to my next question, which is: What is the difference between a heat wave and a generally hot summer day?

Good point. Good question, because we know that the annual temperature recorded over a whole year and over summertime, they’ve been rising generally over time. At least 8 of the top 10 warmest years ever recorded in the U.S., again since record keeping began back in 1880, those have happened since year 2000. The decades are getting warmer. In a gradual trend that’s absolutely measureable and we see that in the record. That’s a little bit different from heat waves, which generally that term means there’s been extremely hot temperatures that last more than two consecutive days. There are a couple things in there. There is no one heat wave definition or temperature that applies everywhere — all over your state, all over the U.S., all over the world. The definition of a heat wave changes in terms of temperatures from place to place because people who live where it’s cooler are generally more sensitive to extreme heat. It’s really important that local departments of health work with the National Weather Service. Here in the United States, we actually are so lucky to have a fabulous weather forecasting agency that works very well with local health authorities to figure out the critical, the locally critical threshold temperatures. And when those temperatures are forecast, to reach out to the public to those most vulnerable among us as say: “Hey, everyone please take note, get ready. Get ready to drink more water. Maybe slow down a little bit, watch out for the forecast.” And doing all of those things to protect our health.

I think you brought up a great point about the definition of a heat wave not being the same in every place. I think that just goes to show us that residents of a certain region should be a little bit more aware how climate change is affecting their area and what it means, in terms of their preparation, whether it’s extreme cold or heat or anywhere in between. So, great point.

Absolutely. It’s important to remember that as great as air conditioning is, in terms of protecting our health when it is very hot, not everyone has access to or can afford to run air conditioners. So it’s really important (to know) some of those other steps we can take short of that turning on the air conditioning knob where we work or where we live because that’s not always available. The good news there is there’s several dozen U.S. cities that have got fantastic heat health-related warning systems in place and there are municipal cooling centers that people can go to if they don’t have air-conditioning on their own. So there’s a lot of really positive actions that cities across the country are taking to help all of us residents of a city, of a country and of a world that’s heating up.

Definitely. So we hear sometimes on hot summer days that certain days are classified as “bad air days.” Can you tell us what that means and how it might affect us?

Sure, I’m happy to. It’s true that with climate change that days are getting hotter. The thing about what happens to air quality on the hottest days is higher temperatures typically amp up or increase the rate of creation of a really bad actor in the wave of air pollution: ground-level ozone smog. That’s the source of what are known as those bad air days, as you call them. There’s a way of measuring air quality, it’s called the Air Quality Index. Sometimes you’ll hear even on the radio or you may see it online — AQI —what’s the Air Quality Index today? It’s a way of measuring the combined effects that ground level smog pollution and also particles, fine particles that we can breathe into our lungs and they’re quite harmful to health. The good news is you listen for news about the air quality index. And if it’s a day when unhealthy air quality is predicted, you can limit or plan your activities accordingly. So that you or a family member, or you know a kid who may have asthma or a respiratory problem, doesn’t get some of the symptoms from being outdoors on those hot, bad air quality days. You know, irritated eyes, noses and lungs. Air pollution is really bad for your health and especially for 27 million Americans among us who have asthma. So it’s a great idea to listen to those air quality alerts day by day and there are some great resources for keeping up to date with what the air quality is. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has an online site That’s a site you can visit every day no matter where you are in the country and know if it’s going to be what kind of air quality day.

That’s great to know. So can you tell us a little bit more about the other effects of climate change during the summer season?

Sure, I can, because summer is a time when, myself included, we want to get outdoors and enjoy the outdoors. I mean, that’s good for our health, for our mental and physical health. With rising temperatures, there are some features of the outdoors amounting to, for some people, making summertime not such a picnic as it used to be. Here’s some of what I am mentioning. NRDC, by the way, has a fact sheet that we put together earlier this month to sort of put together some of these tips about how to keep enjoying the summer because we’ve already mentioned and talked a little bit about heat waves, about air pollution which gets worse as temperatures rise.

Also, there’s some insects that can carry infectious illnesses — ticks and mosquitoes. With warmer summer temperatures and summers that basically last longer, those insects are able to be active and expand their range or the areas in the country in which they can inhabit and be active. In some cases, unfortunately,  (they) transmit infectious illnesses like Lyme disease, in the case of ticks, or West Nile virus, in the case of mosquitoes, to all of us out here who are outdoors trying to enjoy the summer and perhaps, wearing less clothing. Well, that’s kind of good news for the insects because they sometimes like to bite us, and we can take precautions to limit our contact with potentially disease-carrying insects, so there’s that.

Then there’s poison ivy. Our dear friend, poison ivy — it’s been around since, you know, all of us were children. The thing is it’s growing lusher, bigger and basically itchier because of carbon dioxide, the main type of greenhouse gas. It’s acting like a fertilizer for poison ivy. And there’s a few hundred thousand reports of pretty significant cases of poison ivy-induced dermatitis each year. So we need to be mindful and watch for poison ivy around the borders of yards and really try not to get into it. The third one I mentioned is the another type of air pollution and those are allergens. Plants that produce pollen are doing it for longer seasons, longer periods with rising temperatures. The spring time that just went by, that’s when trees produce their pollen. A lot of people are allergic to tree pollen. Right now we are in the middle of the grass pollen season. And later on in the summer and fall, it will be ragweed pollen production season. There are more people allergic to ragweed pollen than all other plants combined. The ragweed pollen production season is already, in some parts of North America, over two weeks longer just in the last 20 years because of rising temperatures. So we need mindful of that if and you need to take allergy medication, or limit your activity or be sure to take a wet wash cloth and just dab off your hair and clothes after you come in from indoors when it’s polleny outside, we can really help ourselves to limit pollen exposure.

That’s great. That was some great information about some of the other things we need to be mindful of during the summer. So you did mention, Kim, the fact sheet the NRDC recently released about the “8 Things We Hate About Summer that are Getting Worse with Climate Change and What We Can Do About Them.” But I just wanted to know a little more about what the NRDC is doing to educate folks about the effects of climate change.

I’d be happy to. People can find that tip sheet on summer heat, climate change and tips for the summer at our website: For the better part of the last  10 years we’ve been working very closely at connecting the dots between climate change and people’s health. We have some great resources online that I invite people to dig in to and check out.

We have a series of national maps of how climate change is affecting people’s health right in your backyard. You can select the state that you live in, the county that your aunt lives in, or by ZIP code. You can explore these maps and see those connections between climate change and health. And, there are links to what people are doing to prepare because for sure as we were talking before, preparedness is key.

We need to prepare for the effect of climate change even at the same time that we prevent the very worst effect by limiting carbon pollution at its source. NRDC continues to be very active in supporting those reductions in carbon pollution for power plants. EPA has proposed its clean power plan right now that would do just that. It would limit carbon pollution that is the heat-trapping pollution that causes climate change a really significant amount — 30 percent reduction by 2030 and NRDC has on its website a place where people can express their support for that. It’s great news for public health, it’s good news today, because it limits a lot of air pollution that effects us right now. It’s great news for the health of our kids and grandkids because climate change causes a whole host of health issues that we don’t want our kids to face. People can find the link to that support; taking action, all kinds of action including saying: “Yes, I want to limit carbon pollution from power plant to protect my health and the health of the people I care about” at the NRDC website.

We have twitter handles. We have a twitter handle, @NRDC, that people can visit and @NRDCScience,
because we are an organization based on science and the power of science to develop great policy to protect health, to protect the places and people that we care about and really advocating for a healthier and more secure communities.

So we’ve got a lot of resources, I’m glad you asked that. Thank you.

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Posted: June 20, 2014