Kids in Hot Cars: Tragic Misconceptions

Two tragedies last week were reminders of a continuing and underrated weather hazard: people continue to leave children in their parked automobiles, where the heat is ever escalating. The victims in the separate incidents in Oregon and California on June 20 and 21 were both under two years of age.
An average of 37 children each year die from hyperthermia while left alone in automobiles, largely due to persisting misconceptions about the heat dangers of the interior of a car.
For many years now, Jan Null, an AMS Certified Consulting Meteorologist in northern California, has been fighting these misconceptions about the heat danger of leaving children in cars. In addition to his studies, presented at AMS conferences  (e.g., watch one here), Null operates a web site of statistics on child hyperthermia in cars.
Perhaps the first big misconception Null refuted is that conditions outside need to be blisteringly hot. Ordinary warm days are dangerous, too. The outdoor temperatures in last week’s deaths were 80°F and 81°F.
This point has been thoroughly documented in studies by Null as well as others, and was reviewed and refined in a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, by Andrew Grundstein, John Down, and Vernon Meentemeyer.
These studies show that temperatures climb surprisingly fast in the car’s interior. Here’s a table from Grundstein et al.:
It’s also a misconception to think that adults are a good judge of what conditions are tolerable. Null reminds people that children are physically much more responsive to conditions—they heat up two or three times faster than adults.
Because leaving children unattended in cars is illegal in some states, one might think these deaths are a case of bad parents making bad decisions. Yet less than one in five of these hyperthermia deaths is because a parent intentionally left the child in the car to, say, run errands. Null’s statistics show that about 400 (54%) of the 760+ heat stroke deaths since 1998 occur when caregivers forget a child is in the car. Almost 30% of the deaths occur when children climb unattended into the cars by themselves and get locked in.
But perhaps the most insidious misconception is that unfit—or forgetful or distracted or hurried or overworked—parents are the most susceptible to being forgetful about such an important matter.
In an AMS presentation, the University of Georgia’s Castle Williams revealed the perceptions that lead to such mental mistakes. Many parents and caregivers don’t believe that they are capable of leaving a child in a car by mistake. As a result, these parents considered it very unlikely that their child might suffer hyperthermia in a car, even as they recognized that the consequences would be severe. They believed that certain demographics–poor, single, working parents–would be more prone to such mistakes. This mismatch in perception of risk and awareness of consequences creates a communication challenge.
“All parents are at risk for this issue. It can happen to anyone,” Williams noted. (The results from his interviews with parents were later published in the the journal, Injury Prevention). “None of the demographic variables show any kind of relationship of having an increased risk of this occurring.”
How to combat the deadly misconceptions about kids in hot cars? According to Williams, “New messaging should focus on increasing perceived susceptibility to emphasize that every parent and caregiver is equally susceptible to forgetting their child in a hot car.”
Organizations such as Safe Kids Worldwide have begun stepping up efforts to inform people of the risks. And Williams’s study shows parents are paying attention to news reports of incidents on TV and in social media. Perhaps the misconceptions can be dispelled soon.

TRMM Keeps on Truckin'

It’s been 15 years since the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite was launched. Over that time, TRMM has significantly advanced our understanding of precipitation through measurements of the global distribution of rainfall at Earth’s surface, the global distribution of vertical profiles of precipitation, and other rainfall properties. As a result, TRMM provides clues to the workings of the water cycle and the relationship between oceans, the atmosphere, and land. But the benefits of TRMM extend beyond the research community. The image below exhibits the kind of operational data TRMM can supply: it’s a rainfall analysis of SuperStorm Sandy that reveals the heaviest rainfall totals during the storm (more than 10.2 inches) were over the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

TRMM rainfall analysis for SuperStorm Sandy, with the storm's track over the Atlantic Ocean overlaid in white. NASA image.

Despite its advanced age, TRMM continues to provide unique data; its enduring value is evidenced by the fact that more than 50 presentations at the AMS Annual Meeting in Austin are related in some way to TRMM and its data. A few examples: Yingchun Chen of the University of Melbourne will examine TRMM’s estimates of daily rainfall in tropical cyclones using the Comprehensive Pacific Rainfall Database (PACRAIN) of 24-hour rain gauge observations (Wednesday, 9:30 a.m., Room 10b). A poster presentation by Dana Ostrenga of ADNET Systems and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will review the recently released Version 7 TRMM Multi-satellite Precipitation Analysis (TMPA) products and data services (Monday, Exhibit Hall 3). Zhong Liu of George Mason University will present a poster on the TRMM Composite Climatology, a merger of selected TRMM rainfall products over both land and ocean that provides a “TRMM-best” climatological estimate (Monday, Exhibit Hall 3). In her poster, Hannah Huelsing of the National Weather Center will show how TRMM 3-hourly data were used to look at the spatial and temporal distribution of the Asian premonsoon and monsoon seasons in Pakistan during 2010’s severe flood year (Tuesday, Exhibit Hall 3).
As TRMM matures, it’s also broadening its horizons and crossing disciplines. Earth-observing systems are increasingly being utilized in the field of public health, and in Austin, the Fourth Conference on Environment and Health will include a themed joint session on this budding partnership. In that session, Benjamin Zaitchik of Johns Hopkins University will discuss the modeling of malaria risk in Peru (Monday, 5 p.m., Room 6b). Zaitchik and his colleagues modeled the influence of land cover and hydrometeorological conditions on the distribution of malaria vectors, as well as the relationship among climate, land use, and confirmed malaria case counts at regional health posts. In the study, meteorological and hydrological conditions were simulated with the use of observations from TRMM and other satellites.

Weather and Climate Services Protecting Public Health: Get Your Questions Answered

by Viviane Silva, Co-Chair, Third Conference on Environment and Health
To address the needs related to reducing climate-weather-water related public health risks, we’ve organized a panel session entitled “Integration of Climate-Weather-Water and Health Information: Strengthening Partnerships and Enhancing Services” during the Third Conference on Environment and Health at the AMS 2012 in New Orleans (Monday 23 January, 4 p.m., Room 333).  Taking part in the discussion will be a distinguished group of experts, including: Dr. Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service; Dr. Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental and Health for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry – CDC; Dr. John Balbus, senior advisor for Public Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – NIH; and Dr. John Haynes, NASA, Health  and Air Quality Applications Program Manager.  This is your chance to participate as well.
The topics will include research and data needs, opportunities for shared efforts, and emerging services to support decision makers in the health community. The presenters plan to focus on

  • the changing landscape of society’s need for integrated information to enhance decision making and each agency contribution to this regarding climate, weather, and water information to predict, prevent, or manage public health risks;
  • how CDC, NIH, NOAA, and NASA will work collaboratively with other agencies to  address national, state, local, and tribal needs;
  • how these agencies will support open exchange of data and delivery of information and decision tools; and
  • current efforts to facilitate research and development of services.

The presentations are designed to foster a conversation with the audience. Some of the questions the presenters plan to ask are: What integrated weather/water/climate/health information do you need? What challenges do you face when trying to access data that you need? What would you envision being included in a related Decision Support System or Health Early Warning System? Considering the current fiscal environment, what integrated information would you consider to be the highest priority?
We’re looking for more questions from you.  Post your questions as comments to this entry on The Front Page and we’ll make sure
they will be answered during the panel discussion.