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The deadly threat of a sweltering apartment

Editor’s Note: Monday on the PBS NewsHour, special correspondent Sarah Varney explores how U.S. health experts have adopted a practice from Africa in which ordinary citizens are trained as community health workers.

On several days this summer, Victor Sanchez’s apartment in upper Manhattan got so sweltering hot by 2 p.m. that he had to step outside for relief, despite outdoor temperatures being in the 90s. The glass on his windows was searing to the touch.

“I get dizzy; it’s hard to focus,” Sanchez said. During the most recent heat wave, he said his apartment exceeded 100 degrees and stayed typically in the high 90s through the night.

Gabriel Bencosme, a Harlem resident, said the hottest room in her apartment is her children’s bedroom. They are 5 and 7 years old.

“My daughter avoids the top bunk because of heat,” Bencosme said. “Instead she sleeps on an air mattress on the floor.”

Emergency rooms have seen an increase in visits from public housing residents in New York City’s lower-income areas, with the highest rates of hospitalization for heat-related illness occurring during record-breaking heat waves. In 2013, Harlem residents visited emergency rooms twice as much as New Yorkers in other boroughs.

In 2015, the most dangerous place to be during a heat wave was a non-mobile home, with little or no air conditioning, according to the National Weather Service. Columbia University scientists predict by 2020, New York City could see a 20 percent rise in heat-related deaths. By 2050, that number could rise to 90 percent.

Heat can have deadly consequences. More than 9,000 Americans have died from heat-related causes since 1979, more people than have been killed by any other type of weather event, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But despite complaints, few studies exist on how hot people’s apartments become, especially in public housing. In 2013, the Department of Health reviewed medical examiner records for 48 recorded hyperthermia deaths. Forty-one of these cases involved people who were overcome by heat in their homes, and 36 noted evidence of cardiovascular disease. Of the 26 whose records were attainable, 23 lacked any air conditioning.  

Jennifer Vanos, a professor at Texas Tech University who studies heat-related health issues, said high temperatures can cause a myriad of ailments, including dizziness, fatigue, dehydration, headaches and lethargy. The worst cases can result in a heat stroke, causing people to pass out and sometimes die.

The problem of heat stress extends beyond New York City. In Tucson, mercury peaked at 115 degrees Fahrenheit in June, and temperatures in Phoenix reached 118.

But a new citizen health initiative, the Harlem Heat Project, is trying to help the low-income residents who are most affected by the scorching summer heat. Sophisticated sensors, developed and prototyped by public radio broadcaster WNYC, that measure heat and humidity are placed inside 50 homes. These sensors take a snapshot of “feel-like” heat levels every 15 minutes.

The project partners include WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group, ISeeChange, a community climate and weather journal and AdaptNY, a climate news service.

“When I was on the 18th floor, that was bad,” said WNYC reporter Sarah Gonzalez, who helped distribute the sensors. “Everyone has all these tricks and fans placed in particular directions.”

Participants stick the small sensor in the room where they spend the most time. Data is collected every two weeks by the attached SIM card. Those without computers mail SIM cards in envelopes. The devices record what floor the data came from and the direction of the sun.

Harlem Heat Project’s mission is simple, to publish scientific information tenants didn’t know before.

“When people have ongoing health issues, heat oftentimes will exacerbate those,”  Vanos said. “This includes cardiovascular illness, respiratory illness such as asthma, or they may be on medications that affect their body’s ability to thermoregulate and keep salt and water levels in balance.”

Even though air conditioning is overused in some Manhattan neighborhoods, individual units are rare in public housing. What’s more, two of the hottest recordings tracked to date by WNYC sensors came from public housing tenants.

“Until we can fully capture the role heat plays in deaths and hospital visits, people are not going to view it as a health problem,” Gonzalez said.

Editor’s Note: AdaptNY, one of the partners of the project, was omitted from an original version of the story.

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