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Interview: Reporter Discusses ZIP Code Data Revealing Inequities In Heat-Related Illness

in a graphic illustration two people lean against an outdoor wall, suffering from heat-related illness
Joanna Eberts For The Center For Public Integrity
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A report by the Orlando Sentinel and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that inequality is fueling heat-related illnesses across Florida.

Two stories recently published by Orlando Sentinel, Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity explore heat-related illnesses by ZIP code in Florida and Arizona — two of the hottest states in the country.

They also reveal how many government officials and health providers in Florida are not properly tracking and treating heat-related illnesses, as temperatures rise with global warming.

WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke with Sofia Moutinho, a reporter with Columbia Journalism Investigations.

Some of the people most vulnerable to climate change are farmworkers. Why are they most at risk?

Because they work outside, so they’re exposed to heat all the time while they're working. They also engage in very heavy manual work that puts your body in extreme situations — have to deal with all of them effort of your manual work, plus the heat.

Neighborhoods with a history of racial segregation and low-income populations also have the highest rates of heat-related illness. What did you learn about that connection in particular?

So this was one of the most interesting conclusions of our investigation, is that inequality really fuels heat illnesses. In our investigation, we basically look at two states, Florida and Arizona. And in both of these states, the ZIP codes that have the highest rates of heat-related illnesses are neighborhoods that are shaped by racial segregation are neighborhoods that have a strong pass of racial disparity, places, for example, where policies like red-lining would say where people of color could live or buy a house.

And what do we see is that low income is totally linked to this kind of problem. And that's because of many reasons: Low-income families don't have access to an air conditioner, they often cannot pay the electricity bill to have this kind of heat relief, they live in neighborhoods that were neglected by authorities for so many years.

Fort Pierce is the hottest area in Florida, right? It's home to the 34950 ZIP code, which is a majority Black and low-income neighborhood called Lincoln Park. So what are residents experiencing there?

This neighborhood called Lincoln Park has six times more than the state average when you look at heat-related illnesses rate. The heat-related illnesses rate almost doubled in the mid 2000s to now, and when you look only at people who went to the hospital, it almost tripled. Sad stories coming from there.

I spoke to this community activist who was a veteran and he went to war in Iraq. So you imagine he is used to the heat, but not really the heat is a problem also in Florida. So he walks around he drives his car, always carrying a cooler with ice and a blanket in case he sees people having a problem outside suffering a heat stroke or something.

So he takes his blanket, put water on it, and cover the person so the person can cool down. And also spoke to some farmworkers there that been working in farms for the last 40 years, 30 years. The heat it's a very common problem to them, like to have a heat stroke, they have like a specific expression they use. They say when a person had heat stroke it was “caught by the bear” because the heat comes when you least suspect, like a bear coming from behind you and just put you to the ground.

What are some physical impacts of heat that we're seeing across Florida?

The heat impacts, they vary a lot. Depending on the case, it can be something very mild as a headache or feeling dizzy, and it can also be severe. And the most severe case of heat-related illnesses is a heat stroke. And this happens when your body reaches a certain temperature that it becomes dangerous. So if the body temperatures rise to 104 Fahrenheit degrees, it can affect your brain. And that's when you start to lose consciousness and you can even die. And we see people having all this wild range of symptoms in Florida because of the heat.

And there is also chronical exposure to heat, which is also a problem. So you may not experience a severe symptom when you are exposed for the first time. But for example, farmworkers that work outside in the heat every day, the damage accumulates over time. And it can be that they don't feel anything serious now, but in five years, they will develop some kidney damage that can be life threatening.

The investigation explores how heat-borne illnesses are not reportable at the state or federal level, unlike sickness, like from food or lead. Can you tell us more about the conversation around that?

Heat is actually kind of a silent killer, a silent threat. So many doctors, they don't use the codes that are related to this kind of disease. When they report when you go to the hospital, and you have a headache, maybe it's because of the heat, but not necessarily this will show in the hospital records.

And also, for example, if someone faints in the street because of the heat and calls an ambulance and the paramedic comes, and they can just report is under some general condition. They can just say, “Oh, sickness, or altered consciousness.” So it's very difficult to have this data to see really how many people are getting sick because of the heat.

And also, with the chronical exposure, like I mentioned before with the farmworkers that have kidney problems, when the problem appears, the doctor may not link this to your heat exposure. So definitely it's a very underreported problem.

And your investigation points to a lack of help from local and state officials. Can you describe what government help is still needed in these areas?

I think it has to start with the recognition of the problem, and this is something that we're not seeing in Florida as a whole. We also wrote about Arizona and for example, Phoenix is a city that’s been struggling with the heat for so long, and the governmental authorities know about it. And they are thinking about public policies related to this, but we don't really see this happening in Florida.

To solve this problem, you have to think both small and big. You have to think about simple measures, like providing shade in the urban infrastructure, especially to these low-income areas that have been neglected for so long. And also think about strengthening community networks of help, creating cooling stations where people can go during the summer, and also promoting educational campaigns to show people that heat can be a problem.

Sometimes when you grow up in a place that is always hot, you don't really recognize this as a threat, but it is a threat and it's gonna be even worse with climate change.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.

Jessica Meszaros
Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media.