Rising heat threatens Silicon Valley’s vulnerable populations
A family sits in a cooling center established at the Camden Community Center in San Jose in June 2020. Photo courtesy of San Jose Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services/John Amayun.

Extreme heat is dangerous and sometimes lethal—and it’s becoming difficult to escape in the age of climate change.

In Silicon Valley, some residents struggled to stay cool during a heat advisory earlier this month. About 50 people gathered at three public cooling centers in San Jose from July 9-11, according to Daniel Lazo, spokesperson for San Jose Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services.

Some of the people who utilized the cooling centers were homeless, Lazo said, while others had homes that lacked air conditioning or had a broken unit. The centers provided water, Wi-Fi, charging stations and, most importantly, a safe place to avoid the heat.

“Community cooling centers are very vital for our residents and they will always be welcome whenever they come,” Lazo said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified several groups that are especially vulnerable to heat, including athletes, older adults, outdoor workers, infants and children, low-income residents and individuals with chronic medical conditions.

About 618 people die from heat-related causes in the country every year, according to findings from the CDC. But heat-related illnesses and deaths are likely under-reported because they are unrecognized or misclassified as another underlying cause, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Even estimates about heat-related fatalities are unavailable in Santa Clara County. Marianna Moles, spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, explained that heat-related illnesses are not a reportable condition in California, meaning medical providers are not required to provide this information to the county health department.

But Moles said rising temperatures do put lives at risk.

“Longer hot periods of weather are concerning because extreme heat is a health hazard,” she said in a statement to San José Spotlight. “The public can take steps to prepare for heat waves. Replace air filters or arrange for an air conditioned place to stay for yourself or elderly neighbors and family who may be more vulnerable to heat illness.”

Federal and local governments should expect and prepare for more intense and frequent heat waves in the coming years, according to several medical and environmental experts who testified at a July 21 congressional hearing on the dangers of extreme heat.

“Extraordinary heat events, like the recent heat wave that killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest, will become more common,” Dr. Aaron Bernstein said in his written testimony to the House Subcommittee on Environment. “Heat can damage every organ in our bodies and sometimes in surprising ways.”

Cooling center at Camden Community Center in San Jose in June 2020. Photo courtesy of San Jose Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services/John Amayun.

Bernstein is interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Among other recommendations, he urged legislators to strengthen protections for outdoor workers, support urban greening strategies to reduce heat in cities and invest in research about the effects of heat on adults and children.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) told San José Spotlight she agrees that legislative action is needed to save lives.

“From deadly wildfires to extreme heat to prolonged droughts to power shutoffs, the South Bay is already experiencing significant and deadly impacts from climate change,” she said in a statement. “I’m working to mitigate these effects, including by providing workplace protections from heat for vulnerable workers.”

California has the strongest heat protection labor laws in the country, according to Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers. But she said establishing federal standards would still benefit California workers.

“Many farmworkers are migrants and they move with the seasons to different states,” she told San José Spotlight. “A federal standard will make it easier to educate all workers about their rights.”

Strater explained farmworkers need shade, cool water and breaks to keep their core body temperatures at safe levels. But she said many fear they will face repercussions if they push their employers for safer working conditions.

“They are afraid (to speak out) because many are undocumented or may live in a mixed status household,” she said.

Animals are also susceptible to heat-related illnesses, said Dr. Cristie Kamiya, chief of shelter medicine at Humane Society Silicon Valley. The veterinarian advised keeping pets indoors during heat waves and monitoring for signs of overheating, including disorientation or excessive panting. She said “smush face” breeds, such as Pugs or Persians, are especially vulnerable.

“Remember that if it’s too hot for people, it’s going to be too hot for your pets, especially if they’re not accustomed to that level of heat,” she said.

Visit the CDC’s website to learn about symptoms of and treatments for heat-related illnesses.

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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