Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Opportunities and Challenges for Personal Heat Exposure Research

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Opportunities and Challenges for Personal Heat Exposure Research

Article excerpt

Introduction

Environmental heat is a natural and anthropogenically enhanced hazard with well-documented adverse impacts on human health and well-being (Gasparrini et al. 2015; Parsons 2014). Despite decades of physiological, epidemiological, and climatological research about high temperatures, heat waves, and hot indoor and outdoor environments, information about the actual thermal conditions people experience as they go about their daily lives is scarce, leaving the potential for under-informed risk assessments, policies, and intervention measures concerning heat exposure and health. The recognition that personal exposure can differ substantially from fixed-point measurements has led to more valid and precise understandings of, and solutions for, the impacts of other environmental hazards on people, particularly the effects of air pollution (e.g., Payne-Sturges et al. 2003; Steinle et al. 2013). Analogous information about heat could become an important tool for designing better strategies to monitor exposure and reduce heat-related illness and death.

Heat illness and death occur when body core temperature exceeds a tolerable range for physiological functioning. Because biometric body temperature information is not widely collected and shared, researchers commonly seek proxy indicators for personal heat stress. The data that are often used to reflect indoor and outdoor conditions that can become dangerous for various types of activities and populations are generally well documented and accepted (Parsons 2014). Less understood is how often individual people encounter these conditions and how long exposures last; when, where, to whom, and why these encounters occur; how recurrent exposures may be associated with physiological impacts; and how best to reduce their frequency, duration, and severity.

Meteorological observations and climate model projections indicate that warm-season temperatures and the frequency and severity of extreme heat events have increased in recent decades and that this trend will continue (IPCC 2013). This warming will be exacerbated in many cities owing to the impacts of the built environment on local atmospheric conditions (Oke 1982). As a consequence of both global- and urban-scale processes, increases in heat exposure for some populations are expected. In the absence of additional adaptation--physiological, behavioral, or technological adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects--adverse heat-related health events may become more common (IPCC 2014; Hondula et al. 2015). The challenges associated with current weather patterns and future warming have motivated many researchers to perform a variety of detailed heat-health risk assessments that largely aim to inform future adaptation efforts, local- to global-scale climate policy, or both (e.g., Gasparrini et al. 2015; Harlan et al. 2012; Vargo et al. 2016; Xiang et al. 2014).

The intent of our commentary is to catalyze discussion of personal heat exposure among environmental health scientists and practitioners. In particular, we lay the groundwork for additional perspectives on how personal heat exposure research could become a useful addition to the portfolio of techniques used to assess heat-health risk and ultimately reduce the health burden of heat. Studies are emerging that involve measuring and estimating personal heat exposure. Some researchers are capturing the environmental conditions experienced by individuals going about their daily lives using small, portable, affordable data loggers (Basu and Samet 2002; Bernhard et al. 2015; Kuras et al. 2015). Other investigators are estimating personal heat exposure via simulation models of the positions and travel patterns of large populations (Glass et al. 2015; Karner et al. 2015; Schlink et al. 2014). We explore how such studies relate to one another and enhance the precision and validity of knowledge about the impacts of heat on people. To do so, we first offer a definition for personal heat exposure. …

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