Even as temperatures are just beginning to rise this Spring there has already been the first 2015 juvenile heatstroke death when a 2-1/2 year old boy died last week in a hot car in Phoenix. But it doesn't even need to be a blazing hot day in a southern state for these tragedies to occur as evidenced by deaths last year in places like Oregon and Michigan on relatively mild days.
Most people may have seen media reports about an isolated incident or two of a child dying in a hot car, but when put into a nationwide context there is an epidemic. On average 37 young lives are lost every year in the United States. Since 1998 over 636 infants and children have died horrible deaths due to heatstroke inside hot vehicles.
These incidents cross every socio-economic classes, from professionals like attorneys, professors and dentists to white collar engineers to blue collar workers to the unemployed. Over half (53%) of juvenile vehicular heatstroke fatalities occur when a caregiver is somehow distracted and accidentally leaves a child in a vehicle, most often when the child was supposed to be dropped off at either childcare or preschool.
Another 29% of the heatstroke deaths occur when children playing in vehicles are overcome by the heat. And the saddest group is comprised of the remaining 17% of the children who died in hot cars after being intentionally left in vehicles by a caregiver who chose to run an errand, get their hair done, go to bar or the casino, etcetera.
Heatstroke (aka extreme hyperthermia) describes heat-related illnesses when a body’s temperature exceeds its normal range and loses its ability to cool itself. This is exacerbated in infants and children whose body’s heat up three to five times faster than adult. When a person’s body temperature reaches 104 degrees (the clinical definition for heat stroke) their cooling system is overwhelmed to the point it begins to shut down. A person with heatstroke may experience symptoms that include confusion, faintness, strong and rapid pulse, and possible delirium, hot dry skin or even unconsciousness. Continued exposure to very high temperatures can produce brain damage and other organ failure. At 107 degrees, cells within the body start to die and organs begin to shut down, quickly leading to death.
A car, truck, SUV or van heats up rapidly to lethal temperatures in a very short period of time. This author began research on the topic in 2002 that was subsequently published in Pediatrics and is continuing and kept up-to-date online at noheatstroke.org. The research found that temperature readings inside a closed vehicle peak at between 40 and 50 degrees above the outside air temperatures with about two-thirds of the rise in the first 20 minutes. Consequently, even on a mild 70 degree day temperatures can reach readings that can be fatal to an infant or small child. The research also found that “cracking” the windows had a negligible effect on the temperature.
This research has become a “go to” source on the topic and is used worldwide. It is hope that interest in this sad topic will raise the level of interest and awareness and ultimately to save some innocent lives. The bottom line is that each and every one of these deaths
is 100% preventable. Infants and children are the most precious cargo that is ever transported in a vehicle and we should always be cognizant of the potential dangers to a child left alone in a car.
Please take a moment to share this information either personally or via social media with your family, friends and colleagues. It might save a life.
Jan Null, CCM
San Jose State University