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With excessive heat waves comes big risks, Duke researchers warn

Workers at a construction site.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Workers at a construction site.

Climate change is having an impact on how North Carolinians live and work.

That’s according to Duke University researchers, who said in a recent virtual media briefing with the media that some of the worst effects are due to long summer heatwaves.

Excessive heat can kill. And for people with chronic health conditions, it can make those problems worse.

Duke scientist Ashley Ward studies the connections between climate and health. She says prolonged heatwaves are also having an impact on people who are pregnant.

"Most of the studies that show that the increased risk for preterm birth due to heat exposure falls around a half a percent to 1.5 to 2% increase,” she said. “What we saw in some parts of North Carolina got us up to about a 6% increase."

Ward says doctors, nurses, and midwives need better training on the health effects of excessive heat. And she adds governments need to adopt policies to minimize the impacts on people who are exposed to heat on the job. In order to address that risk, structural change will have more of an impact than just "individuals doing their part."

"We need to create environments that mitigate that risk above and beyond what individuals can do," she said. "This is where community approaches are effective."

Meanwhile, heatwaves are also affecting outdoor workers in fields like agriculture, construction, mining, and fracking. To avoid severe health consequences, a slower pace of work and breaks are needed. But long-term, that can lead to productivity losses.

"Given how much we know agricultural and construction workers on average contribute to the U.S. economy, we can estimate this is something like maybe $20 to $100 billion of labor productivity losses per year in the U.S. just because people can’t as efficiently and effectively do the work," earth and climate studies science researcher Luke Parsons said.

Ward calls for action at the federal level to combat this. But even though this is likely the new normal, there are steps that can be taken to adapt, such as increasing tree canopies in urban spaces, making changes to building codes that require energy efficient buildings, and supporting policies that help people increase the energy efficiency in their homes.

"What we’re talking about here is a real shift in thinking, away from regulatory approaches towards an investment,” she said. “This is important because investment is what’s needed to build production in the U.S. to clean energy."

Bradley George is WUNC's AM reporter. A North Carolina native, his public radio career has taken him to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and most recently WUSF in Tampa. While there, he reported on the COVID-19 pandemic and was part of the station's Murrow award winning coverage of the 2020 election. Along the way, he has reported for NPR, Marketplace, The Takeaway, and the BBC World Service. Bradley is a graduate of Guilford College, where he majored in Theatre and German.
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