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Elderly at higher indoor heat risk

USA:  New research suggests that exposure to extreme indoor heat may be connected to a greater number of heat-related deaths amongst the elderly than previously believed.

Although extreme heat is a leading cause of weather-related illness and death, scientists have conducted limited research on its impacts indoors, where people spend most of their time and may suffer severe health effects if their homes are inadequately cooled. 

Now an interdisciplinary team of scientists is addressing this issue by developing an innovative method to estimate health risks of older adults indoors. It suggests that exposure to extreme indoor heat may be connected to a greater number of heat-related deaths than previously believed, especially among the elderly.

“People in the United States routinely spend as much as 90% of their time indoors, yet we know very little about indoor exposure to extreme heat,” said Cassandra O’Lenick, lead author of the paper and a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. “To get a better picture of how heat is affecting health, we need to consider the indoor environment, especially as temperatures warm with climate change.”

O’Lenick, an environmental epidemiologist, worked with a team of researchers specialising in a broad range of disciplines, including the atmospheric sciences, social sciences, building science, and public health, to measure the impacts of indoor heat.

The researchers developed a method to estimate hour-by-hour indoor temperatures by drawing on models of indoor thermal comfort and building energy, and by incorporating such data sources as weather records and the characteristics of different types of buildings. They then applied statistical techniques to correlate indoor heat with emergency room admissions and mortality rates.

Heat is dangerous to human health because it can exacerbate cardiovascular and respiratory disease, as well as lead to dehydration and heat stroke. The elderly, very young, and those with chronic health conditions are known to be especially vulnerable.

Focus on Houston

The team focused on the city of Houston because of its ageing population, socioeconomic disparities, and extreme heat during summer months. The researchers insist, however, that the method they created could also be adapted to other cities.

Although the main focus of the article was to demonstrate the method’s effectiveness, the study noted that indoor heat exposure may be responsible for a substantial number of heat-related deaths not captured in official records. The authors found that people living in lower-income neighbourhoods that were predominantly non-white and had less central air conditioning faced the greatest risk of dying from health conditions caused by indoor heat. 

“These findings in Houston show that we need to learn more about the influence of built environment and outdoor temperatures on indoor heat and population health risks in other places as well,” said NCAR scientist Olga Wilhelmi, the senior author of the study. “This can help guide strategies to better safeguard human health through building design and management.”

The study, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through an EPA STAR grant, was published in Environmental Health Perspectives. It is part of a larger project, conducted by Arizona State University and NCAR in collaboration with Houston Health Department, looking at the impacts of indoor and outdoor exposure to ozone and extreme heat in a warming climate and the health risks for an ageing population.

A Case-Crossover Analysis of Indoor Heat Exposure on Mortality and Hospitalizations among the Elderly in Houston, Texas

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