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Very hot surfaces are a catastrophic burn hazard in Phoenix

Very hot surfaces are a catastrophic burn hazard in Phoenix

Very hot surfaces are a catastrophic burn hazard in Phoenix

Since early June, 50 people have been hospitalized with superficial burns and four have died at Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix.

PHOENIX (AP) — Ron Falk lost his right leg, had extensive skin grafting on his left and is still recovering a year after collapsing on the scorching asphalt outside a Phoenix convenience store where he stopped to buy a cold soda during a heat wave.

The 62-year-old, who now uses a wheelchair, lost his job and his home. He is recovering in a hospice for patients with nowhere else to go, receiving physical therapy and treatment for a bacterial infection in the remainder of his right leg, which is too swollen to use the prosthesis he hoped would help him walk again.

“If you don’t find a place to cool off, the heat will get to you,” said Falk, who lost consciousness due to heat stroke. “Then you won’t know what’s going on, like in my case.”

Hot sidewalks and unshaded playgrounds pose risks of surface burns as air temperatures hit new summer highs in southwestern cities like Phoenix, which just recorded its hottest June on record. The average daytime high temperature was 109.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with not a single high below 100 in 24 hours.

Young children, older adults, and homeless people are at particular risk for contact burns, which can occur in seconds when skin touches a 180-degree Fahrenheit surface.

Since early June, 50 people have been hospitalized with such burns and four have died at Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix, which runs the largest burn center in the Southwest and serves patients from Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Southern California and Texas, according to its director, Dr. Kevin Foster. About 80 percent of the people were injured in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Last year, the center admitted 136 patients for superficial burns between June and August, compared with 85 over the same period in 2022, Foster said. Fourteen died. One in five was homeless.

“Last year’s record heat wave brought with it an alarming number of patients with life-threatening burns,” Foster said of a 31-day period, including all of last July, with temperatures of 110 degrees or higher during Phoenix’s hottest summer on record.

A map released this week by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California clearly shows how hot surfaces like asphalt and concrete are in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The data for the visualization of land surface temperatures was collected on the evening of June 19 by a NASA instrument aboard the International Space Station that measures thermal infrared emissions from the Earth’s surface. The yellow, red and violet of warm urban areas on the map contrast with cooler green spaces.

In Las Vegas, where summer highs typically reach triple digits, 22 people were hospitalized at University Medical Center’s Lions Burn Care Center in June alone, said spokesman Scott Kerbs. That’s nearly half the 46 people hospitalized during the three summer months last year.

Like Phoenix, the desert sun beats down on Las Vegas for hours every day, frying outdoor surfaces like asphalt, concrete and metal car doors and playground equipment like swings and monkey bars.

Superficial burn victims often include children injured by walking barefoot on scalding concrete or touching hot surfaces, adults who collapse on a sidewalk while intoxicated, and elderly people who fall to the pavement due to heat stroke or another medical emergency.

Some do not survive.

Thermal injuries were among the leading or contributing causes of last year’s 645 heat-related deaths in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.

One of the victims was an 82-year-old woman with dementia and heart disease admitted to a suburban Phoenix hospital after being found on the scorching pavement on an August day that reached 106 degrees.

The woman, who had a body temperature of 105 degrees, was rushed to the hospital with second-degree burns on her back and right side, covering 8% of her body. She died three days later.

Many patients with superficial burns also suffered potentially fatal heat strokes.

Valleywise Hospital’s emergency department recently adopted a new protocol for all heatstroke victims, immersing patients in a bag of shaved ice to quickly lower body temperature.

Recovery for those who suffered skin burns was often prolonged: Patients underwent multiple skin grafts and other surgeries, followed by months of recovery in skilled nursing or rehabilitation facilities.

Bob Woolley, 71, suffered second- and third-degree burns to his hands, arms, legs and torso after tripping into the scorching rock garden in his Phoenix backyard while wearing only a bathing suit and tank top.

“The experience was extremely painful, almost unbearable,” said Woolley, who was hospitalized at Valleywise Burn Center for several months. He said he considers himself “95% recovered” after extensive skin grafts and physical therapy and has resumed some activities he did before, such as swimming and motorcycle riding.

Some of the burn victims in both Phoenix and Las Vegas were children.

“In many cases, this involves young children walking or crawling on hot surfaces,” Kerbs said of those hospitalized in downtown Las Vegas.

Foster said about 20 percent of inpatient and outpatient skin burn victims treated in downtown Phoenix are children.

Young children are not fully aware of the damage that a hot metal door handle or a scorching sidewalk can cause.

“Because they’re playing, they’re not paying attention,” said urban climatologist Ariane Middel, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who leads the SHaDE Lab, a research team that studies the effects of urban heat.

“They may not even realize it’s hot.”

By measuring the surface temperatures of playground equipment, the team found that in 100°F (38°C) weather with no shade, a slide can heat up to 160°F (71°C), but a cover can reduce that temperature to 109°F (43°C). A rubber floor covering can reach 185°F (85°C), a handrail can heat up to 120°F (49°C), and concrete can reach 132°F (55°C).

Many metro Phoenix parks have covered picnic tables and plastic drop cloths stretched over playground equipment, which keeps metal or plastic surfaces up to 30 degrees cooler. But many don’t, Middel said.

He said the cooler wood chips are better for feet than rubber mats, which were designed to protect children from head injuries but absorb heat from the scorching sun. Like rubber, artificial turf gets hotter than asphalt.

“We need to think about alternative types of surfaces, because most of the surfaces we use for our infrastructure are thermal sponges,” Middel said.

Hot concrete and asphalt also pose burn risks to pets.

Veterinarians recommend that dogs wear booties to protect their paws during outdoor walks in the summer or keep them in cooler, grassy areas. Owners are also advised to make sure their pets drink plenty of water and don’t get too hot. Phoenix prohibits dogs from using the city’s popular hiking trails on days when the National Weather Service issues an excessive heat warning.

Recovering at Phoenix’s Circle the City, a hospice facility where he was sent after being discharged from Valleywise’s burn unit, Falk said he never imagined the Phoenix heat would cause him to collapse on the scorching asphalt in shorts and a T-shirt.

Because he had no identification or phone, no one knew where he was for months. He has a long road ahead of him, but he still hopes to regain some of his old life, working for an entertainment event concessionaire.

“I kind of went into a downward spiral,” Falk acknowledged. “I finally woke up and said, ‘Hey, wait, I lost a leg. ’ But that doesn’t mean you’re useless.”