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Young Athletes Are In Greater Danger As Kansas City Sees More Hot Summer Days

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Kansas News Service
A new report says young athletes are more at risk as climate change increases the number of dangerous heat index days.

Kansas City has more days with a high heat index than it did a few decades ago, and that could make outdoor sports and exercise more dangerous.

Extreme heat events are on the rise across the United States due to climate change. That is putting athletes, especially young athletes, at risk, according to a report released Wednesday from Climate Central, based at Princeton University.

“High heat, humidity stresses the body,” Climate Central meteorologist Sean Sublette told KCUR. More extreme heat days means more danger for athletes practicing for fall sports like football."

Just this summer, three high school athletes have died in the heat. On Aug. 13, a 16-year-old girl's basketball player from Georgia died after an outdoor conditioning drill. In June, a 14-year-old boy died from the heat after a football workout in Florida, and a 15-year-old football player died after a practice in Louisiana. A cause of death has not been determined in that case but the temperature was in the 80s during the evening workout. 

More ‘danger days’

The Climate Central report says the number of days with a high heat index — a combination of temperature and humidity — is increasing.

"Nearly a dozen U.S. cities experienced an increase of at least 4 danger days on average since 1979," the report finds. A “danger” day is when the heat index reaches 105 degrees or hotter.

The problem isn't as acute in Kansas, Missouri and states in the upper Midwest because of huge swaths of land covered by corn, soybeans and other crops. The vegetation tends to keep the climate cooler.

Still, the report finds, Kansas City gets four more days with a heat index over 90 than it did in 1979. Climate change "hasn't made a massive change yet like we've seen down in the Gulf coast, but it does signify the change is starting to take shape even in Kansas and Missouri, that humidity is starting to creep up on a more regular basis," Sublette says.

This new report comes at a time when the concern about heatstroke among young athletes is top of mind.

Last week, the Garden City Community College Trustees approved an additional $100,000 to investigate the exertional heatstroke death of 19-year-old Braeden Bradforth, a football lineman who died after his first practice last August. That doubles the budget for the probe to $200,000. "The college is taking measures to ensure that a thorough investigation is possible," GCCC said in a statement. 

Safety measures

The Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut — named after the Minnesota Viking who died of heatstroke in 2001 — just released its rankings of high school safety policies. 

New Jersey has the best practices. Missouri comes in eighth; Kansas trails at a distant 34th. The rankings consider many factors, including whether athletes are given enough time to acclimate to weather and workouts and how prepared schools are to deal with traumatic head injuries and heat. 

Best practices include keeping ice tubs onsite for rapid cool down. Heatstroke experts say plunging someone in a tub full of ice water is 100% effective in preventing heatstroke deaths.

“That's why you should have ice water tub on the sidelines,” says former University of Oklahoma football team doctor Randy Eichner, a leading expert.

Neither Kansas nor Missouri require ice tubs at high school practices.

However, both states require schools to have and rehearse emergency action plans for medical emergencies, crucial to saving lives.

“First and foremost is that the plan is practiced that it's rehearsed” at least once a year, says Francis O'Conner, a doctor who teaches at Uniformed Services University in Maryland and has helped the military develop heat safety plans.

Sam Zeffis KCUR's metro reporter. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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