Monday, August 9, 2010

700 A Day Dying

People are dying at an unprecidented rate in Moscow, Russia from a combination of smog and high temperatures. An average of 700 per day are dying as the capital city is smothered by heat and poisonous smog that is coming from wildfires across western Russia.

While we might think this is some kind of exotic problem because it's happening a long way from home, let me assure you that this could happen right here in our own backyards. What is causing this situation is very simple to recreate anywhere, so we need to understand what's happening and consider what we would do if we were faced with the same threat.

The two main risk elements are high temperatures and severe air pollution. As to the first factor, daily high temperatures have been in the area of 100 degrees F., prompting Russia's head of weather service to say, "Our ancestors haven't observed or registered a heat like that within 1,000 years."

I'm not convinced that they have weather records that date back 1,000 years, but at least they seem to think this is an unusually hot summer. Diamrid Campbell-Lendrum, of the World Health Orgaization said that deaths could double with higher temperatures alone, and quoted the long-hot summer of 2003 in Europe as an  example. During that couple months of heatwave, there were nearly 15,000 deaths in France alone.

The second factor in Russia's current disaster is the extreme smog, caused by some 550 separate wildfire, filling the air with dangerous levels of pollution. Campbell-lendrum stated that it would be difficult to determine if the majority of deaths is due to the heat or the smog, but the combination is dangerous. In fact, the level of air pollution is measuring 7-times higher than what is considered to be the safe level.

Of course, the elderly, the very young, and the infirm are most at risk of heat-related and smog-related illness and death. It would be one thing if everyone could retreat to an air conditioned home and operate an air filtration system to clean the air. But that's not possible in Russia, and it's not even possible in all parts of the U.S.

Already in the U.S. there are times during the peak of summer temperatures when the electrical utility company cannot keep up with demand. There are "rolling brownouts" or full-blown blackouts just when you need the air conditioner most. Have you thought about what you will do when the power goes off in the middle of a real disaster? We're so used to flipping a switch to adjust the indoor environment, and some folks have forgotten how to live without the modern conveniences.

Unless you can manage to evacuate to someplace cooler and with cleaner air, you might have to take steps to minimize the suffering right where you are.

  • Dampen your skin to produce natural air conditioning through the process of evaporation. Moisten articles of clothing to prolong the cooling effect. 
  • Use a fan, rather than an air conditioner. Air bowing against your wet skin or clothing will feel almost as good as a real air conditioner. 
  • If the humidity level is low, drape wet cloth in front of the fan to produce cool air from evaporation. This is the same principle as used by the venerable "swamp cooler" type of air conditioner, but it only works when ambient humidity is low. 
  • Minimize your activity level, to avoid overheating.
  • Slow your pace.
  • Drink lots of water to replace body fluid lost to perspiration. 
  • Eat cold foods that don't require cooking, because cooking will introduce more heat into the house.
  • Switch to a mostly vegetarian diet. Eating meats raises the caloric level in the body and creates internal heat. 
  • Pull the curtains to block out direct sunlight.
  • If you are outdoors, wear light-colored  full-coverage clothing to prevent sunburn and to minimize dehydration.
  • When air pollution levels are high, don't go outside unless absolutely necessary. 
When the temperature is high and the smog is literally killing people, it's time to "go to ground" and lay low. Slow everything down. Stay in the shade. Don't move around a lot, and don't breathe any more than necessary. 

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