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“Urban Heat Islands” Across U.S. Put Certain Neighborhoods At Heightened Risk

Temperatures in urban cities are found to be at least eight degrees higher than surrounding areas, causing higher risks of heat-related illnesses for millions of American residents.


Extreme Weather

The map above shows census tracts in Detroit, Michigan, with higher temperatures due to urban heat islands. Detroit was one of 44 cities with identified urban heat islands that increase temperatures compared to surrounding areas, creating health risks for vulnerable populations. (Direct Relief map)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a joint editorial initiative between the National Association of Community Health Centers and Direct Relief.

DETROIT — Southeast Michigan may be known for cold and snowy days, but 70% of Metro Detroit residents are experiencing hotter temperatures due to environmental factors.

Climate Central, a national nonprofit, recently released data on 44 major U.S. cities that have “urban heat islands,” or areas where temperatures are amplified. The data shows census-level tracts across the country that are at least eight degrees warmer than local temperatures.

The nonprofit reported that 41 million people nationwide are within urban heat islands and are at a higher risk of suffering from heat-related illnesses. These areas are warmed by a lack of green spaces, too many tall buildings that block airflow, a heavy population density, and an abundance of surfaces that are more prone to absorb heat, like dark roofs and paved roads.

About 4.8 million people live in the seven counties of southeast Michigan. Many of the cities and towns were built along grids that now amplify heat through distinct rows of homes and buildings. Detroit made history when the historic Woodward Avenue became the first paved road in America. However, the 27-mile-long street is now lined with buildings that draw in heat and warm the metro area.

According to Climate Central, Metro Detroit is one of nine metro areas where over 1 million people are affected by the increased temperatures.

Kaitlyn Trudeau, a senior research associate at Climate Central, said the summer’s extreme temperatures and the amplified heat can create dangerous health situations. The researcher said that development in high-density areas exacerbates climate change and acts as a “multiplier” for increased temperatures. She also said that cities built on grid systems, like those in southeast Michigan, are more likely to “trap in heat” due to lack of airflow.

Trudeau said that increasing access to green spaces and using innovative building materials will prevent temperatures from rising across urban areas.

Health Impacts of Heat

People with chronic conditions, children, older adults, and people who spend prolonged periods of time outdoors are most at risk of a heat-related illness. The three main heat-related illnesses include heat cramps, heat stroke and heat exhaustion.

Just over 8,700 southeast Michigan residents live within the parameters of Community Health and Social Services, or CHASS. Though the health center is located in southwest Detroit, the health center serves residents in areas that include Taylor, Allen Park, Lincoln Park and Ecorse, all of which have urban heat islands.

About 13% of residents within the health center’s coverage area are 65 and older, and 46% of residents are considered low-income.

Dr. Felix Valbuena, CEO of Community Health and Social Services in southwest Detroit, said a mixture of heat and poor air quality is a cause for concern. The already industrial area was blanketed with smoke earlier this summer from wildfires in Canada.

“When we talk about climate issues, we’ve been dealing with the new bridge that they’re building behind (our location), and so there’s been a lot of issues with air quality, and the wildfires in Canada that are coming down,” he said. “So people are having lung issues, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and have been ending up in the emergency room, and we’re bringing them in for a follow-up, or they’re calling in and saying, ‘I’m having trouble breathing.’”

Of the patients seen at the center, 264 have been diagnosed with asthma, 157 have chronic lower respiratory diseases, 988 are overweight or considered obese, over 1,300 have diabetes, and over 1,900 have hypertension.

The air and heat are a concern, and Valbuena says that they warn patients to be aware of symptoms of heat-related illnesses like dizziness, fatigue, high blood pressure, and experiences of exhaustion while doing normal activity.

He also cautioned against using alcohol during extreme temperatures and said that alcohol already encourages dehydration. Valbuena shared that those who drink alcohol in the heat are more likely to experience diarrhea and vomiting. Those who take medications to manage chronic conditions should also be mindful since they may be less likely to sweat but are still overheated.

As extreme temperatures soar across the U.S., Direct Relief is focused on supporting health centers across the country, with medical support and with backup power options through its Power for Health program, which aims to install resilient power systems so health center operations can continue during outages.

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