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Expert Says Heat Could Kill Thousands

August 17, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rising temperatures across America are overwhelming vulnerable people and could kill thousands, according to an authority on health and the environment.

″This will probably emerge as one of the largest natural disasters of this century ... and it will have just whispered its way by,″ said W. Moulton Avery, executive director of the Center for Environmental Physiology in Washington.

By ones and twos, the poor and elderly are succumbing to the heat, which overtaxes their bodies, he said. But most of these tragedies will pass with little notice, being recorded in government statistics as heart attacks or strokes, rather than heat-related fatalities.

In the end, Avery warned Tuesday, this summer’s stifling temperatures threaten to exact a higher death toll than the 1980 heat wave that killed an estimated 15,000 Americans,

″If I had in my hand right now the number of people that have died this summer (from heat) it would be front-page news all over the country, but I don’t have that number,″ said Avery, whose non-profit center researches the effects of heat and cold on humans for government agencies and other clients.

He has argued for a reporting system to record heat deaths, but statisticians must depend on comparing deaths during heat wave years with ″normal″ years and calculating the excess fatalities. That was the system used to determine the 15,000 extra deaths in 1980.

″What we’re living through now is the same thing we were living through in 1980,″ and is worse than many other hot summers, he said.

Normal death rates nearly doubled from Oklahoma east during a 1966 heat wave - with deaths jumping to five times normal in St. Louis - according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging later reported that heat waves in 1963 and 1966 claimed a total of 11,000 lives.

And a University of California at Berkeley study found that hot spells in Los Angeles in 1939, 1955 and 1963 each produced more excess deaths than any recorded natural disaster in that state, including the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

Those most vulnerable to heat stress are the elderly, who already may suffer various ailments, Avery said. In 1980 the elderly accounted for 70 percent of the excess deaths in the hot weather, he said.

After a few days of a heat wave, the elderly begin to arrive at hospitals with heat-related problems, said Dr. Keith Sivertson, director of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Older people, he said, ″are more vulnerable for a variety of reasons. Mostly because their physiologic reserve is gone with age. Their heart function tends to be just enough, their mental function tends to be just enough, all of their organs are functioning just enough. For some folks, it’s not quite enough on some days, and they end up in the hospital.″

In addition, he noted, the elderly use more prescription medications, and many of those drugs can increase sensitivity to heat.

Heat-caused deaths do not arouse the concern they should because of the lack of a reporting system, Avery said.

As a result, only classic cases of heat stroke get reported officially as heat deaths to the Centers for Disease Control, and those amount to perhaps 200 in a normal summer and 1,500 to 1,600 in a hot summer such as 1980, he said.

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