Fan use not ideal for beating heat

Health officials warn about the harm in fan use during the day.
Sunday, July 3, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:05 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

While many Columbians enjoy the cool comfort of air conditioning in their homes, some aren’t as fortunate to have that luxury.

Temperatures soared into the upper 90s last week, and Wednesday’s heat advisory in Boone County issued by the National Weather Service made it almost unbearable for those without air conditioning.

With summer far from over, Columbians can typically expect the hottest days to come.

Fans are a common alternative for those who do not have air conditioning, but some experts say fans can actually be harmful if they are not used properly.

Heather Baer, spokeswoman for the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, said fans aren’t the ideal way to keep cool.

“When you are getting into a heat-alert situation, although using a fan may feel cooler, your body is not sweating at this point, and it actually can be damaging to you,” she said. “At night, it’s much more productive as the air cools off. The best thing you can do in the daytime is find somewhere that has air conditioning.”

According to the Missouri’s Health and Senior Services Department, fans are only effective when the skin surface is moist either with sweat or with a dampened cloth, and distribution of fans is not effective.

Carol Braun, an epidemiology specialist at the Missouri Department of Health, said as of Wednesday there had been one heat-related death in St. Louis and at least 35 heat-related illnesses across the state. She expects, however, that many cases have gone unreported.

“There haven’t been any fatalities reported in Boone County that I am aware of,” she said. “A lot of (illnesses) are activity-induced where people are not drinking enough fluids.”

Braun said that since 1989 there have been 353 heat-related deaths. The elderly are most vulnerable.

“Of those 353 deaths, 225 were among people ages 65 and older, which is about 64 percent,” she said. “They are definitely more susceptible because many are on medication and in an un-air-conditioned environment. As you get older, your body changes and is less attuned.”

The Voluntary Action Center recognizes that fans are not ideal, but it has a program to help low-income families deal with rising temperatures. The center will provide fans for the elderly, people with disabilities and families that have infants, young children or pregnant women.

“There is a need for fans in the community for low-income families,” said Cindy Mustard, executive director of the program. “We can’t afford to provide air conditioning, but it’s better than nothing.”

Mustard said the center provides mainly box window fans that can help “blow the air around.” They give first priority to those who meet the criteria and have the lowest incomes.

“We bought 40 fans already, but what we need are donations — whether it’s new fans or dollars,” she said. “We have close to 100 people on the (waiting) list, and we’re running short on fans already.”

Baer said the health department supports the giveaway, even though it isn’t the best way to keep cool.

She said the department has other options, such as a utilities assistance program that helps residents pay for air conditioning. The Heat Energy and Light Program provides one-time emergency assistance to low-income families with young children in the home. The Citizens Assisting Seniors and Handicapped program provides emergency assistance to low-income senior citizens and persons with disabilities. Boone County residents who have emergency situations and meet income guidelines can qualify for either program.

The Voluntary Action Center will be broadcasting live at the KBIA Fan Drive from noon to 4 p.m. July 16. Mustard said the location of the drive has not been determined, but fan or monetary donations can be sent to the center at 800 N. Providence Road or to Lowe’s, which works in conjunction with the center.

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