UNT Anthropologists Investigate How Heat Affects Physical and Mental Health of North Texas People

When Courtney Cecale moved into her North Texas home in the summer of 2020, she suffered heat shock.

The plants in her car died before she even brought them home. Her two black Labradors, Karl and Tony, fell ill.

“There were some very small and minor ones, and when I started seeing them all together, I got a little worried,” recalled Cecale.

Now, almost two years after moving, Cecale is determined to learn more about how the heat affects people in North Texas. North Her assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, she has collected more than 400 of her stories documenting how the summer sun affects the ability of people in Texas to commute, stay healthy, and more. I’m here.

The heat wave shows no signs of abating. So far in his D-FW this year, he has recorded his 100-degree day with over 30 degrees, and more temperatures are expected in August.

For Cecale, the summer heat isn’t just a nuisance. It’s dangerous. Her work shows how Texans face an uphill battle against the summer sun, which can have detrimental effects on physical and mental health. Cecale hopes that sharing their stories will lead to policy changes that make Texas summers safer for residents.

“We normalize the heat, because what can we do? You can’t block the sun,” Sekar said. “But at the same time, people are getting sick and many are dying. And I think the more we do this research, the more concerned it becomes.”

scorching heat island

Cecale has studied environmental issues in the past. She spent her year and a half in Peru studying glacier melting and also investigating residential water use in Los Angeles.

She started looking for stories about the North Texas heat in the spring of 2021. At first, her desire to study at her Fort Worth in Dallas was met with confusion.

“A lot of people around me thought it was a little silly,” she said.

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But while doing environmental justice work in various parts of Dallas, Cecale witnessed how the heat disproportionately affected Dallas communities.

She found that many communities without access to air conditioning are also located on heat islands. A heat island is an urban area with lots of heat-absorbing buildings and concrete and not enough greenery to keep things cool. Heat island temperatures are several degrees higher than surrounding areas, making the summer heat even worse.

Cecale also found that neighborhood heat data often didn’t account for house-to-house or street-to-street variability.

“We wanted to know where people were hottest and how they dealt with it,” says Cecale. “And how often do they get around it?”

Cecale and several graduate and undergraduate researchers conducted interviews via phone and video calls about the project with the North Texans. They also posted the survey on his website for the North Texas Heat Research Project for participants to fill out in their own time.

Seven-year-old Sergio Linares from Dallas splashes with his family in the shallow waters of Joe Pool Lake...
Sergio Linares, 7, of Dallas splashes in the shallow waters of Joe Pool Lake with his family at Lynn Creek Park in Grand Prairie, Saturday, May 7, 2022.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

“Hell on Earth”

Miserable, terrible, painful, terrible.

Cecale says he’s compiled a list of more than 30 colorful words that North Texans use to describe heat. Her favorite response came from a Texan who said the heat was “hell.”

She heard from a Texan who had to quit a job that required her to spend long hours outdoors because she was fainting at the clock without employee protection.

She went from Texans without central air conditioning in their homes to relying on public spaces like coffee shops and shopping malls to stay cool on hot summer days, to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. , I heard those spaces were just closed.

Many people say they stay indoors during the summer months to avoid extreme heat. It can increase feelings of isolation and anxiety, says Azadeh Stark, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who wasn’t involved in the Cecale study.

“Humans are social animals,” said Stark. “We need each other. We need interaction. Even going out and seeing other people and walking around can be very helpful when it comes to mental health.”

Cecale was most moved by the story of an individual who was born and raised in Texas and is suffering from long-term symptoms of COVID-19. The person told Cecale that she has struggled to resume her daily routine for the past two years because the fever made her symptoms worse.

“She realized she couldn’t babysit her grandchildren as well, couldn’t garden, and couldn’t leave the house most of the summer,” said Cecale. “And it’s unlike anything she’s ever experienced.”

Cecale categorized the findings into four main groups of heat impacts: health, transportation, jobs and infrastructure. But they are all related to each other, she said. For example, people with pre-existing health conditions may find it easier to manage their heat if they don’t have to commute in non-air-conditioned vehicles.

Stories to solutions

Cecale’s goal with the heat project was to collect different stories that could be used to brainstorm a solution. She has submitted for publication an article on the health effects of heat, which is currently under review, and has worked with graduate students to develop a policy that includes a list of heat-related concerns she can present to the city. I am creating a paper.

She also uses her research to get the North Texans on board with her own solutions. One of her poll questions asked people about their ideas for managing the heat, and Cecale says she got some interesting answers.

One individual has proposed a “heat offset” that requires developers to install a certain amount of wood for every tree felled to build a new apartment or construction project.

In the meantime, Cecale recommends drinking water and limiting direct heat exposure to 60 to 90 minutes. She said that if people stop sweating or start feeling dizzy or nauseous while out and about, they should stop what they are doing and seek help immediately.

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Stark added that people in North Texas can go outside in the evenings to exercise or spend time outdoors when it gets a little cooler. For this reason, we should consider adding more trees and green spaces.

Cecale is also still soliciting stories from people in North Texas on the research project’s website, either in the form of surveys or interviews. She said she plans to keep her inquiry open until the end of the summer.

She is often moved by hearing about the experiences of people in North Texas, and says their stories help her better understand the world around her.

“I think there’s something really special about people willingly sharing something about their lives with you,” she said. “And it never gets old.”

Adithi Ramakrishnan is a Science Reporting Fellow for The Dallas Morning News. Her fellowship is supported by the University of Texas at Dallas. News makes all editorial decisions.

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