Heat Myths and Warnings

It’s summer, and the news is full of dire warnings about heat. Mostly justified, but some based on myths debunked all the way back in the 1940s.

In case you haven’t heard, it’s going to be hot here in Portland. As I’m writing, my app upped its prediction for day after tomorrow from 113° to 115°.

Most people have never experienced 115°. I have. Actually, it was 125°.

Here are a couple things I learned in the school of hard knocks—things you probably won’t read about in the news.

  • These temperatures will kill electronics. Even turned off, in the shade. Believe the owner’s manual when it gives a maximum operating temperature and maximum storage temperature. These are real.
  • At 110 °and higher, a breeze isn’t your friend. The hot air imparts more heat to your skin than it removes by facilitating evaporation. It’s a weird experience, but also very real.
  • Believe it or not, the coolest, most comfortable clothing is long sleeves and long pants, loose (the looser the better), and light-colored. The desert-dwelling Bedouin have a mantra: dress to keep the heat out. Why do we think we know better than people who have lived in these conditions for untold generations?

A bigger issue is hydration

Pretty much everything you read says that keeping well hydrated is your defense against heat. This is wrong. It’s based on a mistaken belief that dehydration causes heatstroke.

Heat causes heat stroke. Heat also causes dehydration, so the two sometimes go in tandem. But dehydration in and of itself does not cause heatstroke, unless you are so dehydrated that you run out of fluids to sweat out.

If you want hundreds of pages of details on this, check out Waterlogged by South African exercise physiologist Tim Noakes, known to runners for his encyclopedic tome, The Lore of Running. It’s a fun read, but a shorter answer comes from research done during World War II by E. O. Adolph, an exercise physiologist who marched volunteers around the desert near Yuma, Arizona, trying to help the Army prepare for the North Africa campaign.

He made several important findings, but the most important for this discussion is that his volunteers could be as much as 7-10 percent dehydrated (the equivalent to a 150-pound person losing up to 7 liters of water), and not suffer anything worse than becoming grumpy, thirsty, tired, and eventually refusing to budge. Given water and a rest, they were perfectly ready to go again the next day.

So, stay hydrated to avoid becoming grumpy, thirsty, tired, and otherwise miserable. But don’t count on it to stave off heatstroke. (Though, drinking a quart of cold water can lower your core temperature by a full degree, simply from the heat it absorbs as it warms up.)

Finally, be aware of the risk of hyponatremia, a potentially deadly condition created by low sodium in your bloods. Most reports about it involve people who take “hydrate, hydrate, hydrate” too seriously and drink too much. But it can happen even if you don’t excessively hydrate, because the fluids you drink (even sports drinks like Gatorade) contain less sodium than you are sweating off. The result is that you can actually dehydrate but flush enough sodium out of your body to become hyponatremic.  

This is not myth. I’ve seen it happen to an elite athlete in a hot-weather marathon. Luckily, my marathoner had salt tablets in her kit. Two of those and she perked up with amazing rapidity.

Runners and the media always talk about electrolytes. But in the short run, the one that really matters is sodium. A big hit from the salt shaker can do the trick. I’ve even been known to put a couple of salt packets from a place like McDonald’s in a plastic bag in my pocket, so I have them if needed.

Finally, be aware of the symptoms of heat stress. Many are subtle, but one of the most important is that if you feel chilled on a hot day, it’s a sign of impending heatstroke. Stop what you’re doing and get out of the heat ASAP.

Super-spreaders, COVID-19, and the rural/urban divide

Nobody wants to be in a state with a lot of COVID-19 cases. Nobody except perhaps an epidemiologist trying to study how the disease spreads.

In a paper in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team from Emory University (in Atlanta) and the Georgia Department of Public Health, took advantage of the fact that their state ranks 6th in the U.S. in per capita cases to hone in on just how the disease spreads.

They looked at data from the five counties in the state with the most cases, looking for, among other things, superspreader events.

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Why a Mask IS a Political Statement…Just Not a Partisan One

Unless you’ve had the news turned off for the past week, you know that the Mask Wars are on, with a lot of people suggesting that wearing a mask marks you as a Democrat while not wearing one marks you as Republican.

And superficially, there’s something to that. We have a President who declines to wear a mask in public and who not only taunts Joe Biden for wearing one, but at a recent press conference shamed a reporter for being “politically correct” when the reporter refused to take off his mask at the President’s request.

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Covid-19 & the Emperor’s New Clothes

We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes. In it, the emperor is hoodwinked by rogues who take his money and make him…nothing. “Nothing” that his advisors, fearful of offending him, declare to be the finest finery in the land.

Then, the emperor dons the non-existent robes…and a little child calls him out, exclaiming, “But the Emperor has nothing on at all!”

Except…The original fable, by Hans Christian Andersen, is a little more complex.

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How to Make COVID-19 Evolve to Become Less Dangerous

Donald Trump says that even without a vaccine, COVID-19 will eventually fade away. And amazingly, the science says he might be right…though not if we follow his plan for reopening the country.

The science in question is evolutionary virology.

It says is that under certain circumstances viruses will evolve into less virulent forms. In fact, this might even be what happened to the 1918 Spanish Flu…though not until after it killed tens of millions of people.

Let me explain.

In order to be an evolutionarily successful, virus can’t just infect one person, they have to jump from one person to another. They can do that by making us cough, giving us diarrhea that contaminates other people’s food or water, or giving us sores that shed virus particles onto anyone or anyone we touch.

I.e., they make us sick.

But if they make us too ill, too quickly, they don’t get much chance to spread because we either collapse into bed, away from other people, or make others leery enough of catching the disease that they take suitable precautions.

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The Corruption of Critical Thinking

This post is not directly about politics or COVID-19. But it should be, which is why I’ve tagged it for both.

When I was teaching at California State University, Sacramento in the late 1980s, the Cal State system was trying to increase the focus on classes that emphasized critical thinking.

If there was an official definition, I never saw it, but my department made it clear that the environmental studies law-and-public-policy classes I taught were exactly what they wanted.

I ran these classes not as lectures, but as discussions based on assigned readings, and my biggest goal was to challenge the students to think about the readings’ implications, rather than just taking them at face value.

One of my favorite moments was a discussion in which one of the students flipped whatever I was saying at the time back on itself and pointed out something I’d overlooked. “That’s what you taught us to do,” he said, when he realized how well he’d hoisted me by my own petard.

I don’t remember what grade he got for the course, but for that day, he definitely got an A+.

Since then, however, I’ve found that critical thinking is all too often replaced by shorthand substitutes.

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Scylla, Charybdis & COVID-19

In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters guarding opposite sides of the narrow strait between Italy and Sicily. Chart a course too close to one side, and Scylla grabs you. Try to steer clear of Scylla and you fall prey to Charybdis.

It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the modern moment.

Except…in the Greek lore, the two monsters acted independently. Now, it’s more like each isn’t so much trying to snare you for itself as to drive you into the other’s clutches. And it’s something we seem to be doing our level best to assist.

Let me elaborate.

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