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    Heat Waves, Hyperthermia and Hot Cars

    Hot Weather Myths Part One

    Summer is most definitely here, and we have just experienced an impressive heat wave here in New York. Today, I would like to address the importance of car safety and children during the summer. And then I’ll debunk some other hot weather myths in my next few posts.

    Myth: You can leave a child in a car alone if you leave the windows open a little and it is not too hot outside.

    Reality: This is definitely wrong, and this misconception brings lethal consequences to parents who naively believe it.  Dozens of children die each year from being left or becoming trapped in a locked vehicle. Twenty-one children have already died in 2010.

    To “drive” home the point, let me impress you with some amazing figures. The interior of a car parked in direct sunlight can reach temperatures between 131 degrees and 172 degrees when the temperature outside the car is 80 degrees – 100 degrees. On a day that is 83 degrees — even with the windows rolled down 2 inches — the inside of a car can reach 109 degrees within 15 minutes. On a day that is 93 degrees, the inside of a car can reach 125 degrees in just 20 minutes!

    Although you may think that you can handle these temperatures, bear in mind that the body of a child — especially a young child — is less adept at handling heat. This is because they have less capacity to sweat and they have greater exposure to the heat since their bodies have more surface area relative to their volume.

    A child is said to have heatstroke if his body temperature rises above 103 degrees. Heatstroke is indeed a life-threatening medical emergency. Whereas a fever of 104 degrees or 105 degrees does not cause organ damage, hyperthermia with similar body temperature elevations are not as benign. Hyperthermia can lead to injury to various body organs, including the brain, and a temperature of 107 degrees is fatal.

    Although all states have laws against endangering the welfare of a child, only 15 states presently have laws prohibiting leaving a child unattended in a car.

    Interestingly, the incidence of vehicle-related hyperthermia has increased dramatically with the advent of airbags. Since children no longer sit in the front seat, they are sometimes forgotten when out of sight in the rear seat. During the 12-year period from 1998-2009, there were 443 child vehicular hyperthermia deaths. More than half (51%) of these tragic deaths were because the child was “forgotten” by the caregiver. Whereas there were 37 deaths each year on average during this time interval, there were only 3-4 year known deaths per year in the early 1990’s prior to airbags becoming popular.

    For additional information about vehicular hyperthermia in children,take a look at this hyperthermia fact sheet which was published in Pediatrics. Bear in mind that the same concerns about heat exposure in a car interior would likely apply to pets, not just children. So do not leave Junior or Fido in the car unattended.

    Editor’s Note: The consequences of leaving a child unattended in a car are chilling to consider. Last year The Washington Post ran a groundbreaking story on the issue that won the Pulitzer. They also include suggestions from advocacy group on “Ways to Help Prevent a Tragedy.” Please do your part to help reduce this risk and potentially save a child’s life.

    Have you taken extra precautions when it comes to heat and car safety? Share your comments with the Parenting Community.


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