Is extreme heat a wellness issue? According to Ida Sami, PhD, an Arizona state coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force, the answer is 100% yes. Not only are triple-digit temperatures dangerous to the human body, they’re also affecting people’s mental health and overall well-being. We talked to her last week from her home in Tucson—where excessive heat is breaking records—to better understand what we can do about heat right away… and with an eye on the future.
What is the heat like in Tucson right now?
Really intense. We are having more frequent and intense extreme heat days here in Arizona. It’s really hard to go out, and it’s dangerous for the community.
What kind of dangers are people facing just by going outdoors?
Extreme heat is a situation that’s affecting people’s health, physically and mentally. We refer to extreme heat as a silent killer. When you have an extreme heat alert, you might have a different scenario based on your gender, age, any ongoing condition, or health issues. A rise in body temperature can cause you to have heat stroke, heat exhaustion—or even heat-related death, and we have had cases of that here in Arizona. So it’s really important to pay attention to all of the news and information that we have out there regarding heat.
Some people have been living in extreme heat for more than a month—and even those fortunate enough to have air conditioning are stressed. What is this heat doing to people’s mental health?
The more educated you get about heat, the more concerned you get. Among people who depend on public transportation in Tucson, 50% have stopped using the streetcar because of heat. So extreme heat is changing behavior patterns.
Heat is also affecting anxiety and depression in people. Imagine you took a regular walk every day to help with your mental health. Right now, for more than a month, you don’t have that opportunity—not even during the night, due to the urban heat island effects. So if you’ve relied on going into nature and walking around, you can’t do that. We’re seeing increased levels of anxiety, depression, and even visits to emergency rooms. There is also research showing that if you’re using any kind of antidepressant, you have a higher risk of getting heat exhaustion because your body can’t adapt to the temperature change.
What is the best way to prepare for extreme heat?
Check the weather. Stay updated. And take heat seriously. With extreme heat, it doesn’t matter if you are from Arizona, if you’re exercising regularly, or you’re young—you need to take it seriously. Stay inside as much as you can. If you need to leave the house, carry an umbrella or seek shade. Wear clothes that bring more air to your body and help it feel cooler. Wear sunscreen. Drink plenty of water and liquids and eat fresh, healthy foods—they can help you fight the heat.
It’s really important to pay attention for our children. Don’t take them to the playgrounds in the heat, especially if you live in places like Arizona, Texas, Nevada—those playgrounds are not safe. Playgrounds absorb heat, and they can cause burns on children. Keep kids inside and try to entertain them with some games, painting, that sort of entertainment. And don’t forget about pets. If you need to take your dog outside, do it early—around 6:30 or 7 in the morning—and late, around 8 or 9 at night. Those times are much cooler and safer.
This year, we’ve seen a lot of extreme weather events: flooding, heat waves, wildfires. What should we be doing about extreme heat and climate change with an eye on the long term?
Climate mobilization is really important. A really good example is my work with Moms Clean Air Force. We are fighting for clean air for everyone, but our work is specifically focused on communities of color. The people who are suffering from asthma and really need clean air are the same group of people who are most vulnerable to the extreme heat.
Work on climate change and extreme weather events, especially extreme heat, is an interdisciplinary situation. Everyone needs to come together and create an action plan that’s useful. Not just us as researchers or scientists! We need everyone to speak up and create action to save their lives—and save our planet for our children.