Plant a Tree, Prevent a Heat Wave-Related Death

In some American neighborhoods, heat is more deadly than in others.
By Francie Diep ,

Central Park, in New York City. (Photo: Russ Allison Loar/Flickr)

During extreme heat waves, danger lurks in every American city.

As public-health researchers have long known, death rates in cities tend to peak a day or a few days after a heat wave, as the unusually high temperatures exacerbate certain health conditions and place vulnerable folks, such as the elderly, at risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke. But, according to new research, some neighborhoods are more susceptible than others to heat-related ills.

In a new study, researchers from universities and health departments in New York and New Jersey mapped which New York City neighborhoods are most at risk during heat waves. The new data underscore the disparities in who's affected by extreme heat, but they also offer some hope. Armed with this knowledge, city officials could target prevention programs—such as social worker check-ins for elderly folks, advertisements that teach people about the dangers of hot weather, and subsidies for electricity or air conditioning during heat waves—to the neighborhoods that need them most. The study even suggests planting lawns and trees might help.

To conduct the study, researchers looked for patterns among data about surface temperatures in different New York City neighborhoods as well as deaths in New York between 2000 and 2011. They found that New Yorkers who died after heat waves were more likely to live in neighborhoods where more residents used public assistance. They mostly died at home, rather than at a hospital, hospice, or other institution, which would presumably have air conditioning. They were more likely to be black than any other race. (An unrelated, previous study had found that black Americans are less likely to have central air conditioning than white Americans, and that a lack of AC access is associated with death after heat waves).

The new data underscore the disparities in who's affected by extreme heat, but they also offer some hope.

In addition, New Yorkers who died from heat-related causes were more likely to live in neighborhoods where there were fewer trees and shrubs. This study is not the first to find such an association. The new study's authors offered an explanation: Lots of green, planted areas keep the entire neighborhood cooler, compared to only man-made surfaces. Planted outdoor areas may even make it more comfortable for folks who don't have air conditioning at home to walk to certain destinations, such as libraries and stores, that do have AC.

One of the first things humankind did was to try to protect itself from extreme temperatures. How can we still sometimes fail, fatally? Luckily, the solutions don't have to be very sophisticated to work. An AC voucher, a friendly check-in, and even some trees can help.

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