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Story Publication logo August 30, 2021

Summer Heat Can Lead to Adverse Health Reactions for Residents Across D.C.

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A team of youth reporters will map temperature differences across D.C. and examine the causes and...

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Summertime heat waves do not treat all D.C. residents equally. As explained in the first part of this series, neighborhoods like Fort Totten, Pleasant Plains, and Columbia Heights, inside the District’s urban heat islands, can be much hotter than more tree-shaded (and often wealthier) areas.

Residents of heat islands often face serious health consequences because many of them work outdoors and may have to choose between running their air conditioners and paying their higher electric bills.

With average summertime temperatures and the number of heat emergency days on the rise, even relatively cooler, residential neighborhoods in wards 7 and 8 are affected. Residents in those wards are just as or more vulnerable when taking into account socioeconomic factors that contribute to “heat sensitivity” and “heat exposure,” two measures the D.C. government is using to assess who in the city is most vulnerable to urban heat.


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While he is young and fit and has few health complaints, Anacostia resident Jonathan Mejia, 33, is among those at heightened risk from the heat because he lives with his girlfriend and four young children in a third-floor apartment with no air-conditioning. 

“We have a couple fans, so that’s what keeps us nice. Once the sun goes down, it’s easier for the house to cool off,” Mejia says. The worst part of the summer heat, according to him, is cooking. “When you cook, it gets even hotter,” he says. “So we try not to cook so much so the house doesn’t get so hot.”

Mejia was among dozens of local residents at a fan giveaway at Martha’s Table’s Anacostia headquarters on July 26. Volunteers gave out more than 300 fans in less than three hours, according to Elizabeth Workman. Goods for Good, the nonprofit for which she works, organized the giveaway with help from Martha’s Table and the office of Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White.

Clarice Randall, a 68-year-old Southeast D.C. resident who attended the giveaway, says she also lives without air-conditioning. “If I get the fan circulation in there, when I’m cooking for the kids … it can help,” she says.

Residents pulled into Martha’s Table’s circular driveway and double-parked on the street to pick up their fans at the event organized to help residents without air-conditioning. But of all the residents we spoke with, only Mejia and Randall said they have no air-conditioning at home. Other residents were picking up fans for when their central air or window unit AC breaks down or to cool areas of their homes that the air-conditioning doesn’t reach.

Historically Black neighborhoods such as Anacostia have not only suffered from past development policies that diverted investments away from the community, but residents can be at greater risk of heatstroke or heat illness due to a variety of contemporary socioeconomic issues such as poverty and a lack of access to quality health care, particularly for people with chronic health conditions. Take those factors and then add in other commonplace characteristics of low-income neighborhoods such as lower car ownership and fewer nearby grocery stores, and you have a situation that forces people to spend more time walking or waiting for the bus to get to work and meet basic needs like food shopping. Having to spend time outside to meet your basic needs and sleeping through long and sweaty nights in a hot bedroom are regular heat exposures that can add up. 

“These kinds of factors all play together,” says Jennifer Li of the Georgetown University Law Center. “It’s a kind of ecosystem for making the urban heat island worse for many of our most at risk populations and low income populations.”

Even those with central air can be vulnerable, as Shercokthia Green found out firsthand this summer. Another D.C. resident at the Martha’s Table event, Green spent a couple of months without any home cooling after her system went on the fritz in mid-May. After getting “the runaround” about scheduling the repair work, her central air wasn’t back on until mid-July. Not having air-conditioning for such a prolonged period of D.C. heat worsened her chronic health conditions and triggered her anxiety, she says. 

Even people like Green, who have air-conditioned homes, still run a higher risk of heat illnesses when their central air or window air-conditioners break down or can’t keep up with rising temperatures. 

***

It’s another hot day, with a forecasted high of 90 degrees and street vendor Chuck Jackson is finally able to find some shade after the sun slips behind the DC USA shopping center, casting merciful shadow over the west side of 14th Street NW. The shade allows Jackson to keep his umbrella closed, but earlier he was baking in the hot sun.

D.C. commuters know the suffering that is arriving at work drenched in sweat after only spending a few minutes outside. But office workers get relief once they step inside icy office buildings that blast the AC all summer. For street vendors, their work space is a heat-absorbing sidewalk. The outdoors is not a commuting space, it’s a place of work. 

“[This is] one of the hottest places in the city to heal,” says Jackson, a muscular man who looks remarkably fit for someone who just got out of a nursing home. He credits his recovery to the variety of vitamins and herbal supplements, particularly elderberry, he takes every day, in addition to his diabetes medication.

An avid reader, Jackson credits the hobby with making him a good conversationalist. He is also well-versed in theories about positive and negative energy that he says he calls on to keep from being pulled into the negativity of some shoppers. There are worse things than the summer heat about being a street vendor, principally the insecurity of not knowing how much he might sell from one day to the next, he says. Another downside is the frequency with which customers try to haggle him down to as little as $1 a hat, which he finds insulting. “You know you can’t pay a dollar for a hat,” he says.

Since being diagnosed with diabetes, tasks that never made him think twice can now be harrowing for the 60-year-old Washington native. A few weeks ago, Jackson started to feel faint while he was on his way home from picking up several heavy boxes of T-shirts from a wholesaler across town. As he carried the boxes back home, “I felt my feet starting to burn,” he says. 

Jackson’s doctors warned him that going back to working outside could be dangerous because of his diabetes. But a few weeks after he was released from a nursing home, he started to take walks to check out his selling spot and see how he felt physically. Soon he was back out on 14th Street NW with a golf umbrella as his only protection against the heat.

Heat and Health 

Heat illnesses are a spectrum of conditions that range from mild to deadly, says Dr. Matthew Levy, an emergency physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and a faculty member at the university’s School of Medicine. While most people have probably experienced mild heat-related maladies at some point, Levy says severe cases can become life-threatening emergencies that can progress to difficulty breathing and lost consciousness. 

“The most serious of those situations is when the brain and its ability to auto regulate temperature in the body becomes impaired,” he says. That can lead to brain damage or cardiovascular collapse if action isn’t taken to lower the body’s temperature. Luckily when recognized and treated early, patients tend to respond well and can make full recoveries. 

While anyone can get dehydrated and entire groups of people are at heightened risk because of their age, health status, or profession, people who take medications for chronic conditions are also in particular danger. Not only can medical conditions weaken the body’s defense against heat, medications can also put the body more at risk of suffering from heat exhaustion, Levy says.

Some medications, he says, may impair how the body responds to high heat stress. Some blood pressure medicines regulate heart rate but in moments of physiologic stress, these same lifesaving drugs could block the body’s ability to elevate its heart rate to cool off. As a result, a person could pass out. 

Many medicines for high blood pressure, heart ailments, diabetes, and other chronic conditions can also dehydrate the body, potentially leading to heat exhaustion and heat illness. “If you’re on a pill that encourages your body to pee a lot, it’s going to make you more susceptible to dehydration,” according to Levy, who says diabetics who work outdoors in temperatures that regularly soar past 90 degrees face a double challenge since the excess sugar in a diabetic’s bloodstream also prompts frequent urination.

“Thus, if you are outside in the heat [which causes you to sweat in excess as a cooling mechanism] and have diabetes, you have two dehydrating forces working against you,” Levy says.

Humidity is another big problem in urban areas, due to the poorer air quality, Levy says, which can make summertime hard on people with respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“If we go outside during a day where it’s 90 degrees out, even if you don’t have asthma, the air is thick. You feel it,” Levy says. “Now imagine having an illness where your airways spasm.”

Gloria Gomez is one of the many D.C. residents suffering from the lack of tree cover in Columbia Heights. She puts in eight-hour shifts on the 14th Street NW corridor, selling mangoes, lychees, and other products native to El Salvador, the country she left 23 years ago. 

“We [street vendors] like to set up where there are trees,” says Gomez, a diminutive woman with a gentle face, dressed in a loose-fitting T-shirt and pants. “I wish there were trees here so that we could be in the shade.” 

On scorching summer days, the only relief Gomez gets is through 20-minute breaks in air-conditioned stores, usually in DC USA, which looms over her sidewalk fruit stand. While this helps, the long hours in the sun have taken a toll on her body and peace of mind.

Gomez points to the backs of her arms. “I’m getting some spots on my skin,” she says. “It worries me because you can get skin cancer because of the sun. It’s very dangerous.” 

Heat and Trees

Some of the hottest parts of D.C. correspond to locations with very little tree canopy. Ward 1 is one of the least canopied sections of the city, according to Kelsey Desmond, the youth programs coordinator at Casey Trees, an organization focused on restoring, enhancing, and protecting the tree canopy in Washington, D.C. 

While any kind of shade is crucial during the summer, being under a tree is the best way to stay cool. “It’s not just the shade that cools the space—they also, through the process of transpiration, release water that cools the temperature,” she says. You can feel this difference especially at night, when dense urban areas stay very warm even though the sun has set, whereas a park might actually feel cool.

The lack of tree canopy around the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza is connected to how those city blocks were redeveloped in the mid 2000s, when city planners drew up a new Public Realm Framework Plan for the rapid development of the 14th Street corridor around the Metro station and the plaza, at 14th Street and Park Road NW. The design plan included ornamental sculptural flowers made out of tensile fabric over metal frames, which were supposed to provide shade at the plaza, along with “vertical” trees planted in the area and adjacent streets at 40- to 60-foot intervals. The American lindenLondon plane, and pin oak trees take an estimated 30 to 50 years to grow to full size, which suggests it will be at least another decade before the fastest growers among them will be providing much shade.

Nicholas Strocchia and his young son, Frank, are the only people at Bruce Monroe Park in Park View, a neighborhood east of Columbia Heights. He looks on as Frank runs from the jungle gym toward the shaded bench by the community garden. 

“Whenever they’re designing parks, a little bit more shade would be cool,” Strocchia says. Since the city has redevelopment plans for the parcel, it didn’t pull out all the stops when it built the park atop the site of the former Bruce Monroe Elementary School. To this day, the park’s northeast corner still has white lines painted on the asphalt that delineated parking spaces when that part of the park was once the school’s parking lot. Aside from a gazebo at the center, the entire park is exposed to the sun. There are a few trees scattered throughout but they are not big enough to provide much shade. 

One of the main reasons rural areas stay cooler is the shade that trees provide. Even within a city, tree canopy can make a big difference in ambient temperature. During a reporting trip to Bruce Monroe Park, two temperature readings were recorded: one in the area where a parking lot used to be, and another one on the sidewalk under the shade of a tree. There was nearly a 4-degree Fahrenheit difference between the two spaces. 

“Washington, D.C., had lost so much of its tree canopy,” Desmond says. “We had 50 percent tree canopy in 1950. And I think it got down to 30 percent in 1999.” After this tree canopy information was published in a Washington Post article, the philanthropist Betty Brown Casey formed Casey Trees to reforest the city.

Since its formation, Casey Trees has helped the city restore its tree canopy. “In total, 13,182 trees were planted by the City and its partners in 2020,” according to its 13th annual Tree Report Card issued in May 2021, which reported that D.C.’s tree canopy has risen to 38 percent.

One of the strategies that helped the organization reach this number is its inventory program. Among other things, the inventory program uses geographic information systems mapping to perform spatial and geographic analysis of the city’s tree canopy—in other words, Casey Trees maps the city’s tree cover. 

Like mapping the legacy of redlining, online mapping to assess tree canopy is also a new development, first used by the U.S. Forest Service in 2017, to assess the tree canopy in Baltimore, according to Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, the director of the University of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis Lab.

“At the time, the city wanted to know ‘Hey, how much tree canopy do we have? And how much room do we have to plant trees?’’’ O’Neil-Dunne says. “Since that time, we’ve conducted assessments all over the United States.” 

The advent of tree canopy assessments intersected with the access to higher resolution data sets from planes and satellites, which helped identify individual trees and provide more accurate information. Since it takes decades for a tree to grow to maturity, online mapping can capture changes in tree canopy over time, which is also important when identifying spaces that have been neglected. 

“What’s happening is those trees are all aging out at the same time, and no one’s really thinking we need to plant new trees,” O’Neil-Dunne says. “And so our assessments not only identify areas that have been impacted by these racist practices and have low tree canopy, they also identify areas where perhaps they’ve had high tree canopy, but they’ve sort of forgotten about how it got there.”

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