This summer has consisted of consecutive days of record-breaking heat across the country. While North Carolina is certainly no stranger to hot and humid summers, so far we’ve had record breaking warm temperatures this whole year.
Ashley Ward, Director of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, discussed the worrisome uptick in temperatures in a recent media briefing, according to NC Newsline.
“We’re not talking about a heat wave anymore,” Ward said at the media briefing. “We’re talking about a season. We’re talking about a marker of a shift in our heat regime that we need to pay attention to.”
“We’re talking about a new chronic state of being for heat season,” Ward warned. “And it isn’t unreasonable to think this could quite possibly be the coolest heat season of our lives.”
Ward also spoke about vulnerable populations that will be deeply affected by sustained high temperatures.
“It’s not only about farmworkers in North Carolina and throughout the Southeast, manufacturing is located in rural areas,” Ward said. “It is not unusual to have indoor manufacturing temperatures exceed 90 degrees during the day, with populations that return home and live in either energy inefficient housing or do not have access to any cooling in their homes.”
In addition to laborers who never get an opportunity to physically cool down, Ward believes the nation needs to establish rules addressing the well-being of institutionalized populations.
“I noticed a couple of weeks ago in Alabama, for example, it remained over 87 degrees overnight for several days there. Only four of their 26 prisons are air conditioned,” said Ward.
North Carolina’s General Assembly allocated $30 million two years ago to upgrade the 40 prisons across the state without cooling systems. NC Newsline reported in late June that only 63% of all prison beds are in air-conditioned units; meaning roughly 15,000 of the 30,700 people in prison in NC do not have air conditioning.
Similarly, there are no federal requirements for nursing homes and long-term care facilities to be air conditioned. North Carolina law, however, stipulates that these facilities cannot exceed 81 degrees.
“But if you think about 81 degrees to a population that has a lot of chronic illnesses, take a lot of medicines that make it difficult for their body to process heat, that’s really important,” said Ward.
There is also no cooling requirement for public housing or low-income housing.
“So, this is women, children, the disabled. We really need to think holistically about who is at risk, how they’re at risk, and at what thresholds of risk, so that we can develop the appropriate strategies for response,” Ward emphasized.
President Biden recently asked the Department of Labor to issue a Hazard Alert for heat and to ramp up enforcement to protect workers from extreme heat. The DOL will provide information on what employers can and should do now to protect their workers, while helping ensure employees are aware of their rights.
Beyond enforcement, Ward wants to see a national cooling standard implemented.
“We have a standard that buildings be heated during the winter up to a certain level. Landlords are required to provide heating for their tenants; schools are required to have heat; prisons…are protected by this heating standard in the U.S. We do not have a like cooling standard, and this is challenging,” she said.