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In the early 1990s, heat waves battered Philadelphia’s most vulnerable communities. The lessons learned are helping today

Published on September 9, 2021

A view of green space surrounding a statue with the Philadelphia skyline in the background.
Philadelphia skyline from the Museum of Art Image Credit: Rob Shenk CC BY-SA 2.0

The water trickled down quickly, enough to coat the sun-bleached concrete basin in a city park with a layer of wetness. A toddler danced, smiling as water from the park’s sprinklers rained down on her, keeping her cool.

It was a blistering midsummer day in July, the kind that as recently as 30 years ago would have proven disastrous for vast numbers of this city’s most vulnerable residents.

In the early 1990s, heat pounded Philadelphia’s most at-risk communities, killing or sickening scores. After a raft of changes, including the creation of an extensive heat warning system and opening “spraygrounds,” the city has been able to largely diminish the heat’s threat to its residents. And in a world where climate change is making extreme weather the norm, some say the city could be a model.

“We know climate change is here to stay,” said Drew Shindell, a professor of earth science at Duke University. “ … It’s still going to go on for decades, even if we take aggressive action. So it would make sense for more cities to adopt the kind of best practices the leading cities have put into place there.”

Philadelphia, largely bereft of greenery, faces hotter temperatures than more rural parts of Pennsylvania. The red-brick sidewalks and asphalt roadways that line the city’s landscape absorb more heat than natural foliage, creating a heat island effect.

Hot temperatures present a significant health risk, including the threat of heat stroke. When it’s hot, your heart rate climbs. The body kicks into overdrive, producing sweat to help itself cool down.

In summer 1993, Philadelphia reported 118 deaths, far more than other cities experiencing similarly sweltering conditions. Victims, many elderly and secluded, often weren’t found for hours or days. Some didn’t have air conditioning or had closed their windows at the time of their death, a potential indicator that heat may have played a role in exacerbating prior medical conditions, officials said.

“Nearly all of those deaths are preventable,” said Kristie Ebi, professor in the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington.

At the time, most cities tended to label a death as heat-related only when signs of hyperthermia — when body temperature becomes abnormally high — were evident.

Armed with a newfound understanding of the risks heat posed to its most vulnerable residents, Philadelphia officials sprang into action. The city implemented several strategies to insulate various communities from the threat of heat waves. In 1995, the city set up the Hot Weather-Health Watch/Warning System. The program provides the public with forecasts showing air mass projections. Air mass types linked with higher morbidity and mortality rates are noted, at which point the Philadelphia Department of Public Health steps in to provide emergency precautions and mitigation procedures for residents.

According to a 2004 report, such warnings save 2.6 people per day when issued. To date, the system has been implemented in more than 20 cities worldwide.

Continue reading at The Washington Post. 

Originally written by David Suggs for The Washington Post.
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