Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.

It’s Getting Hot in Here

When the body overheats, there are a few telltale symptoms that should not be overlooked. 

The first: a rapid pulse and dry, flushed skin.The second: uncharacteristic confusion or aggression, slurred speech. The third: faintness and the inability to walk in a straight line. 

One or all of these symptoms could mean there is a problem. But it often takes someone else to recognize and act on them, and it’s this part that can be the most dangerous of all: people who live or work alone are more likely to die during extreme heat, which is becoming more and more common thanks to human-caused climate change. 

I am writing this in front of an electric fan from the Pacific Northwest where this past weekend, Oregon and Washington broke records for the earliest hot days in May. It was a shock to go from 60 degrees to 90 in a matter of two days. And it wasn’t even that hot, on paper. The first hot day – last Friday – reached 89 degrees for just a moment in the late afternoon before dipping down a few hours later to the day’s average, 71. Yet the whole day I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. 

The earlier the heat wave, the more dangerous, according to reporting from the Washington Post. We’re not acclimatized to hot weather coming right on the tail of winter, so when spring comes and it’s 90+ degrees Fahrenheit, it’s alarming. 

“If these same conditions were experienced later in the year, they are unlikely to have as large of an effect on human health,” said Zac Schlader, an associate professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, in the Washington Post article.

There are a few groups of people that are particularly vulnerable during heat waves. 

Older people who live alone are one such group. A study on the deadly Chicago heat wave of 1995 found that people who had weak connections in their communities, were distrustful of their neighbors, or lived in areas that had been disenfranchised were more likely to perish in the heat, especially when combined with the health issues that come about as we age. 

Low-income communities of color, which often lack trees and air conditioning, have also been found to be consistently hotter than neighborhoods developed with cooling infrastructure. These factors are very prevalent in rural areas where people tend to be older and there is more manufactured housing without air conditioning. 

People who work outside are also at a higher risk. Farm workers and construction workers face the highest rates of heat illness and death out of all laborers in the United States, and the current labor protections to mitigate their risk are shoddy at best. 

Protections vary by state, with California and Washington enforcing some of the strongest measures. But at the federal level, the fight to enforce heat safety has been difficult. A federal rulemaking has been in the works since 2021, but the average time to get final rules in place can take up to eight years, according to the advocacy organization Public Citizen. For rural workers, the chance of serious illness or death can be even higher due to slow emergency response times, according to reporting from the Daily Yonder. 

And working alone can be the most dangerous factor of all: during the Pacific Northwest heat wave of 2021 where hundreds of people died, all of the farm workers who perished were by themselves in the field, according to the Oregon Environmental Council. Without someone else to detect the signs of hyperthermia (hypothermia’s inverse), it’s possible to dismiss how seriously the heat is affecting your body until it’s too late.

As extreme heat events become more common, protections for workers – and everybody else! – can’t wait. But there are some ways to protect yourself and others on warm days. 

  1. Buy a fan, and buy it now. During that 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave, every single big box store in the Portland metropolitan area ran out of fans. Don’t get caught without one. 
  2. Close the blinds and consider double-layering them with window coverings (like the shades used in cars) to reflect the heat back out.
  3. If you can, don’t work outside during the heat. Learn what heat protections – or lack thereof – are provided for workers in your state by checking out this map, created by the Natural Resources Defense Council. 
  4. Check in on your neighbors. Most heat death is preventable, but it takes looking after one another. 

Stay cool, friends.

Rural Reading List

Colorado’s Right to Repair Law Could Save Farmers Time, Money and Spur Local Business

Manufacturers have locked out farmers and independent shops from repairing new farm equipment, saying simple fixes like reset codes are “trade secrets.” A Colorado law that goes into effect next year could curtail that practice and put money back in farmers’ pockets, an advocate says.

Teas and Tinctures of the Appalachian Forest

Most forests contain a tea party’s worth of medicinal herbs, if only you know where to look and how to use them.

One More Thing: Don’t Be That Guy

As of May 11, the pandemic emergency declaration is officially over in the United States, but that doesn’t mean Covid is gone – it just changes who manages the pandemic response. Covid vaccines are still free and will likely remain so through at least the summer. The federal government is sending out free Covid tests through this website, but most in-person Covid testing sites are closing. 

For the past three years, Covid rates have decreased during the summer. That trend will likely continue this year. The best public health suggestion I’ve seen as we move into this weird, late-stage pandemic era where everyone would like to forget Covid ever happened is to be vigilant and test yourself when you feel unwell, quarantine if you’re sick, and get vaccinated. Just don’t be the guy that gets the whole party sick, okay? 

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