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Why Night Can Be the Most Dangerous Time During Heat Waves

Health + Wellness
Why Night Can Be the Most Dangerous Time During Heat Waves
A woman walks along a street as Tokyo suffers through a heatwave on Aug. 1. Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

By Brian Mastroianni

This has been a summer of scorching, record-breaking heat waves in the U.S. and around the world.


Back in June, Germany experienced a searing high of 101.5°F (38.6°C), according to CNN. The high before that was 101.3°F (38°C) way back in 1947.

Weather authorities throughout Europe declared warnings for people to stay inside and out of the blaring sun. France, for instance, saw an all-time high of 114°F (45.5°C).

In fact, globally, it was the hottest June on record.

Domestically, it wasn't any better. Just last month, everywhere from the Midwest to the South to the Northeast experienced sizzling temperatures.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a "heat emergency," ordering large buildings to clamp down on their energy use to avoid straining the city's electrical grid, while announcing it had opened up cooling centers in city public libraries, community centers, senior centers, and other public buildings.

Even Alaska experienced record-busting temperatures, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But beyond making for colorful headlines, these announcements underscore a pressing public health problem.

Heat waves can be dangerous and sometimes deadly, especially for vulnerable populations like infants, small children, and older people.

While much is made about the health threats posed by daytime temperatures, you need to also be aware of the dangers of heat waves that fail to abate by the evening.

Once dusk falls, some of those most at risk for being affected by the heat might have nowhere to go to stay cool. Others might dismiss the dangers the high temperatures pose to their health.

The Risks Posed by High Nighttime Temperatures

There are various heat-related illnesses people face during summertime temperatures that are hotter than normal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines the most common Trusted Source: heatstroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburn, and heat rash.

They range in severity. Heatstroke, for instance, is when the body hits a temperature of 103°F (39.4°C) or higher. It leads to nausea, headaches, dizziness, and even losing consciousness.

While something like a sunburn might sound more innocuous, it's still serious, damaging your skin with itchy, painful blisters.

People who have conditions like heart disease or obesity have a higher risk for contracting a heat-related illness. Increasingly warm temperatures can make something like high blood pressure worse. This increases trips to the emergency room.

The CDC reports Trusted Source about 618 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat annually.

Many people understand the threat of heat-related health hazards during the day, but they may not realize that equal dangers are still present at night.

After the sun sets during a heat wave, it might feel cooler, but the temperatures outside still may not have cooled down enough for people whose bodies have been exposed to extreme heat all day.

"Elderly, children, those with chronic illness: People who are asleep may not realize that their core temp is rising, as opposed to during the day when they are awake," said Dr. Baruch Fertel of the center for emergency medicine at Cleveland Clinic.

Fertel told Healthline that the pressing threat to these vulnerable groups is that they can be rendered sitting ducks to the negative effects of extreme heat when asleep at night. He says awareness of threats like this during a heat wave is key.

Fertel cautions that you should avoid any strenuous activity, like exercising or lifting heavy objects, during these nighttime hours when your body hasn't been able to cool down.

Living in a "Heat Island"

These risks can be particularly stark for people in densely populated urban environments.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that built-up cities are basically "heat islands" and hotter than nearby rural areas.

Dense urban areas of at least 1 million people can be 1.8 to 5.4 degrees hotter than surrounding areas. This is even more pronounced at night. In the evenings, these heat islands can be as much as 22 degrees higher than their countryside counterparts.

These temperature highs can impair city energy grids, raise air-conditioning expenses, and result in more heat-related illnesses, according to the EPA.

Research published in 2012 looked at the impact these heat islands had on the high death rates in Paris during a deadly heat wave that hit Europe in the summer of 2003.

The study found that high night temperatures had a significant impact on people's health.

"At night, urban areas slowly release the heat absorbed during the day, which prevents the human body from recovering from daytime high-heat exposure," researchers concluded.

Nearly 15,000 people died in France alone during that summer's heat wave. Many of those who died were older people.

Ways to Stay Cool and How to Help Others

Fertel says there are clear, simple recommendations to keep young children, older people, and family pets safe at night during heat waves.

First, he suggests you find a place with air conditioning.

If you don't have an air-conditioning unit in your home, go over to a family member or friend's house that does.

Make sure you drink lots of fluids. This applies to pets as well, so make sure you have plenty of water on hand for your four-legged friends.

Another accessible option for cooling down is to get a handheld fan with water mist.

Basically, do whatever you can to keep your body temperature down.

For some, however, this may be easier said than done. As with serious snowstorms, heat waves can prove a major threat for people experiencing homelessness.

While many standard homes don't have any kind of air-conditioning system, there are still accessible tools a lot of people have for cooling down at night that people experiencing homelessness don't have.

Fertel says that one under-acknowledged reality of extreme hot-weather events is that many of the services often touted to provide safe shelter for those in need — from cooling centers to public libraries — are closed at night.

The City of Boston, Massachusetts, offers recommendations for helping people experiencing homelessness during a heat wave.

Essentially, it involves being a compassionate, good Samaritan. The city suggests contacting 911 immediately if you see someone experiencing a medical emergency.

If you see someone who appears to be suffering from the heat, offer them bottled water, sunscreen, or a hat you might have on hand for protection.

These may seem like simple acts, but they very well might save someone's life.

The Bottom Line

During a summer of record-high heat waves in the United States and around the globe, it's crucial to protect yourself from the effects of extreme heat.

While it might seem counterintuitive, you aren't safe from the dangers of a heat wave when the sun goes down at night.

This is because the temperature hasn't cooled down nearly enough for people who have spent most of the day outside. Experts suggest you ideally stay in air conditioning at night.

If air conditioning isn't available in your home, go to a family member or friend's house where it is available.

If an air-conditioned location isn't available to you, use a fan, especially a handheld one with water mist, to keep cool.

Also drink lots of liquids to stay hydrated. This applies to your pets, too.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthine.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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