How neighborhood affluence affects heat wave deaths

In describing which residents are more affected by heat waves, a newspaper piece cities a sociological study and misses the bigger picture by emphasizing whether there is a shopping district nearby:

People who live in areas without “inviting” businesses are more at risk of dying. A 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review looked at the 1995 heat wave in Chicago and found that mortality rates were higher in areas where businesses were not well tended and leaned toward the bar-and-liquor-store variety.

With fewer businesses that could coax the elderly and other at-risk residents out of their homes and into the safety of air-conditioning, death rates rise, the study authors found.

What is the lesson here: move to a neighborhood with well-kept stores in order to reduce one’s risk of dying in a heat wave? On the whole, it isn’t really the stores that matter: it is about the overall affluence of the neighborhood which then affects the stores. People living in neighborhood with fewer stores are also more likely to be in places with less resources and perhaps less social services. The newspaper is presenting some data without providing a deeper look at the underlying relationship between these two factors.

Then, perhaps fighting the effects of heat waves goes far beyond opening swimming pools and “cooling centers.” Even as many cities have developed plans to deal with heat waves, including Chicago which was hit hard by a 1995 heat wave, it is part of larger structural issues that dictate which neighborhoods have resources and which do not.

The wood-burning fireplace is on the way out, not green enough

Wood-burning fireplaces are more decoration than heating apparatuses in modern homes. But the New York Times reports that even its decorative or symbolic value may not be enough to counter the arguments against their use:

Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace — long considered a trophy, particularly in a city like New York — is acquiring a social stigma. Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, it is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses…

Organizations like the American Lung Association are issuing warnings as well: the group recommends that consumers avoid wood fires altogether, citing research that names wood stoves and fireplaces as major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States.

Wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, as well as known carcinogens like aldehydes; it has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children…

Perhaps not coincidentally, sales of wood-burning appliances dropped to 235,000 in 2009 from 800,000 in 1999, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

Fireplaces are akin to McMansions? I would be curious to know how much effect a wood-burning fireplace has on the average person or how much pollution wood-burning fireplaces across the US release into the air. Then some comparisons could be made between the polluting effect of fireplaces and other objects (like McMansions or bottled water). In addition to the pollution, we could also consider how much wood is burned yearly in fireplaces and where this wood typically comes from.

Beyond the ideas about health and being green, the article fails to discuss several ways to keep a fireplace without burning wood. One option: have a gas fireplace. This may not be too green as well – it does burn gas. But you wouldn’t then have the release of particles into the air. The second option, which seems to be gaining in popularity: purchase an electric heater that looks like a fireplace. I see numerous advertisements for these all the time. Lots of benefits here: you still get the heat, nothing is burning (wood or gas), they are relatively cheap, you don’t have to worry about a chimney and keeping that clean, and you can move the “fireplace” around fairly easily depending on where you want it. There are some electricity costs but you can still retain the decorative or symbolic value without burning wood.

Quick Review: Fall

With classes starting today, I thought I would make the argument that Fall (loosely defined here as late August to late November) is the best season of the year. Here are the reasons:

1. School starts. I’ve always enjoyed school. Now as a professor, it feels good to get back into the classroom and see energetic students again. There is always lots to do. The academic calendar has started anew.

2. The weather improves. I’m not a big fan of really hot summer weather and Chicago has been above normal hot this year. I enjoy the cool edge on the breeze. Today’s weather of about 77 degrees with sunny skies was perfect for the first day of school. And I can’t wait for the chillier days when it feels good to sit inside and read but is still pleasant enough outside to not need a heavy coat.

3. The sports world picks up. After a stretch with only baseball on the air, football, basketball, and hockey start. I enjoy watching both the professional and collegiate level and by October, there is quite a variety of action.

4. Special days. Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer (and summer break), my birthday rolls around, and I enjoy looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I know others would disagree with me but I’m planning to enjoy the next few months.

Summer heat and society

The heat of the summer is often equated with positive things: sun, outdoor activities, the beach, and driving with the windows open or convertible top down.

But the heat can also cause and expose issues in a society. In Russia, there has been record heat and a staggering number of deaths:

On Monday, Moscow health authorities announced that the number of deaths each day in the capital had nearly doubled to 700 as most of central Russia entered the seventh week of a heat wave. The high temperatures, hovering around 100 degrees, have destroyed 30% of the nation’s grain crops and triggered massive peat bog and forest fires that alone have killed more than 50 people and devastated dozens of villages.

Andrei Seltsovsky, chief of Moscow’s health department, said the city’s morgues were filled almost to capacity, with 1,300 of the 1,500 slots taken. He suggested that residents, instead of following Russian Orthodox tradition of holding burials on the third day after death, bury loved ones sooner.

This sort of event is not isolated to Moscow. Something similar happened in Chicago in 1995. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote about the summer in the book Heat Wave: Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago. In an interview, Klinenberg discussed the book. There were some controversy over the “official death count.” Cook County’s chief medical examiner reported 465 deaths related to the heat for the hottest week but the numbers were disputed by Mayor Daley.

Additionally, the death rates differed by race:

The actual death tolls for African Americans and whites were almost identical, but those numbers are misleading. There are far more elderly whites than elderly African Americans in Chicago, and when the Chicago Public Health Department considered the age differences, they found that the black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1. Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths.

So heat can help expose the disadvantaged in society, those who have no or little access to air conditioning, are often alone, and have no one to check in on them. Since that summer in Chicago, the city has opened “cooling centers” (which are available now all over the state of Illinois) to provide a place for those who don’t have other options. Measures like these have cut down on heat-related deaths in Chicago – it remains to be seen what Moscow will do to help with this current and future heat waves.