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Report: Extreme temperatures disproportionately affects minority, low-income communities stuck in ‘heat islands’

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Environment
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Amid a summer filled with record-breaking high temperatures, a new report by think tank Guinn Center warns that extreme heat is becoming an increasingly dangerous health threat that disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities in Las Vegas. 

In a forthcoming report shared with The Nevada Independent, researchers from the Guinn Center identified the Bracken, Paradise, Whitney and Winchester neighborhoods as well as parts of east, north and west Las Vegas and north Henderson as heat islands —  where roads, buildings and other infrastructure retain and remit heat at a higher rate than surrounding areas, resulting in higher concentrations of heat as compared to the rest of the city. 

“Even within a given setting, such as a city, vulnerability to heat is not equally distributed,” stated the Guinn Center report. “Uneven patterns of investment, dislocation and zoning laws have resulted in some of Nevada's communities — disproportionately minorities and people experiencing poverty— facing a state of heightened exposure and vulnerability to climate-related threats.” 

As extreme heat becomes more common across the West, it causes more deaths per year in the U.S. than other natural disasters, such as tornadoes, floods or hurricanes, the report highlighted. On average, 1,500 people die each year from heat-related issues in urban areas. In Clark County, 82 people died from heat-related causes last year. 

The threats are greater for Nevadans who live in the southern region of the state, where temperatures exceed 90 degrees nearly 100 days out of the year, according to a 2019 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists cited by the Guinn Center. Researchers say the region could see temperatures rise to more than 100 degrees for as many as 96 days each year by the end of the century. 

A separate 2021 Regional Transportation Commission study cited in the Guinn Center report found that the populations living in areas most vulnerable to extreme heat are overwhelmingly people of color, making up 80 percent of the more than 100,000 people who live in affected urban areas. More than half identify as Latino, 17 percent as Black and 6 percent as Asian. 

Regions and populations most affected by high temperatures are also less able to mitigate exposure because of economic inequalities, health care disparities, less investment from the government and zoning laws, according to researchers. 

“Generally, residents who are not white, have low or fixed incomes, are homeless, and those in other historically disenfranchised groups are particularly at risk of heat-related illness and injury for a multitude of reasons, including lack of access to air-conditioning or transportation to cooling centers and residence in the hottest parts of cities,” the report states. 

The Guinn Center also analyzed 45 state, county and city heat-related policies adopted over the last decade that affect the Las Vegas area, many of which focused on strategies to lessen discomfort caused by temperature, as well as educating the public and investment in public health. Two statutes address air conditioning requirements for residences and six explicitly acknowledge the relationship between heat and health, but none specify whether they sought direct input from the most vulnerable communities, such as Latino and Native American community members. 

Regarding the gaps in policy addressing potentially dangerous effects of heat, researchers recommended greater efforts in educating the public about extreme heat and the dangers it poses, “weatherizing” public bus stops, expanding solar roof programs for townhomes and condominiums, creating more tree canopies, cool roofs and green street programs and more. 

Heat effects  

The high cost of using more air conditioning and a lack of cooled public spaces leave some Southern Nevada residents, especially those with health issues, with few options to escape the high temperatures. 

Of more than 50 Las Vegas residents interviewed by the Guinn Center for the report, 64 percent said they were very concerned about the risks posed by extreme heat and 63 percent said they were most likely to experience greater heat while in transit, but many also reported challenges with regulating temperature in their homes and at work. 

The majority of those surveyed reported experiencing the most heat when driving a vehicle (many reported not having automobile air conditioning) or walking their children to school or to a bus stop, many of which have no shade coverings. 

“Our pedestrian realm is just a torture chamber for people to be able to access transit,” said a Las Vegas resident. “People won't sit on the benches at a bus stop because they’ll get a second-degree burn.” 

Researchers also noted that the pandemic brought an increased number of ride-share and delivery service workers for companies like Uber, Lyft and Grubhub and who may have not had functioning air conditioning in their vehicle.

Researchers noted wait-times at bus stops during the pandemic grew longer as buses ran less frequently, forcing people to spend more time in the heat. 

Another resident expressed worry about children walking home from school during especially hot afternoons. 

“Now that our children have gone back to school, they should provide a bus to take them home rather than have them walk from school under the sun. Kids sometimes get heat stroke … That is the type of help I think the government should provide,” they said.

During a webinar last week on the report’s findings, Marco Velotta of the City of Las Vegas’s Office of Sustainability said the city’s 2050 Master Plan, adopted last month, will allow for 3,000 parcels of land throughout the city for mixed-use transit zoning, with the goal to make public transportation more accessible, and will include East Las Vegas, where the urban heat island effect is present and affects the large Latino population. 

“It’s about reimagining the stations themselves,” Velotta said, adding ideas for more shading and green walls. 

Respondents also reported seeing more costly utility bills as they used their air conditioning more frequently while being home or working remotely because of the pandemic. Others reported not being able to afford to replace or update their old or broken air conditioning systems. 

Respondents told researchers they try to escape the heat by traveling to malls, casinos, movie theaters, public parks or pools where they can cool down. 

Working in Southern Nevada also drives exposure to extreme heat for workers spending hours outdoors. 

“I worry about construction workers because my husband works in construction. He gets little blisters on his back caused by the heat. It burns his skin,” said a respondent.  

Latino and Native American people are overrepresented in the construction workforce in Las Vegas, making them particularly vulnerable to the heat outdoors during work hours. Other employees identified as vulnerable in the report include landscapers, street vendors, airport and utility workers. 

Audrey Peral, a lead organizer for Make the Road Nevada, emphasized the need to make information and messaging accessible for people who are most affected, suggesting that officials require it to be in multiple languages. 

“I myself am a college educated individual that speaks English and yet I have a hard time navigating … and figuring out resources that work for myself,” Peral said. “You can only imagine how difficult it is for someone that does not know the language, that this is maybe a new country, maybe a new space, but is being impacted by this issue at a disproportionate rate. It's really key for us to continue to meet people where they are.” 

Recommendations 

Guinn Center researchers highlighted the need to educate community members about extreme heat and its effects on a central website and including resources on Nevada 211, a Health and Human Services program designed to connect residents with needed services. They also suggested distributing information to schools and “getting flyers into backpacks.” 

Regarding heat at public transportation stops, researchers suggested including more water bottle refill stations, water misters, providing more shade coverings and using nonmetal materials to reduce the risk of burning people who want to sit on benches while they wait. 

Researchers also recommended expanding utility assistance programs to include people who don’t currently meet income or citizenship requirements. In order to make air conditioning more accessible, researchers recommend establishing programs for the replacement and repair of units in homes and cars, and suggested state leaders earmark federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to fund the effort. 

The report also recommended approval of a regulation proposed by the Department of Business and Industry that would require employers of workers exposed to high temperatures to include a program for the management of heat stress in the written safety program and to actively encourage workers to hydrate. Nevada would be the third state to adopt such a regulation, behind Washington and California. 

During the webinar, Jeff Quinn, manager of the Office of Public Health Preparedness for the Southern Nevada Health District, said it’s his office’s role to educate and inform the public through community outreach about safety and protection tips for managing the heat.  

Quinn said his office works with large employers on how to protect workers who are spending many hours outdoors, including providing sunscreen and allowing frequent rest breaks. But, ultimately, governmental agencies can only do so much, he said. 

“We as governmental agencies or as public health can't solve all the problems for you,” Quinn said. “It really requires the partnership and help of the public to do what they can to stay hydrated, to drink enough water, to monitor the activities that they do during the extreme heat part of the days, to try to look to other times of the day to take care of business and activities.” 

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