As urban heat takes a rising toll on people’s health, a reporter strives to document the problem

Published on
October 18, 2017

The apartment building in San Fernando Valley’s Valley Village has three stories, mint-green and brown mosaic tiles, and no central air conditioning. Inside, an elderly couple was found lying on their beds, declared dead by environmental hyperthermia, on a very hot day. The note in the coroner’s report for the 87-year-old woman says: “ambient temperature 102, liver temperature 104.”

It’s hard to get attention for chronic and sneaky problems — for journalists, for patients, and, yes, for policymakers. So when it comes to the growing influence of climate change on urban heat, those concerned about the problem’s consequences talk about the immediate human stakes, by which they mean illness and death. Heat waves in Los Angeles County officially killed about 55 people in the last 15 years, including the couple in Valley Village. But nobody thinks that’s the whole story.

In stories for KCRW, High Country News, and NPR’s Code Switch, I investigated heat’s human health risks for a few reasons. I wanted to understand who is most vulnerable to an under-documented and worsening problem. And I wanted to understand whether the policies touted as solutions address or acknowledge the problems people actually face.

I found they don’t. Not yet. Efforts by the city of Los Angeles to cut the urban heat island effect in half will take a generation to work, if they do at all. Meanwhile, little is being done to track who’s suffering from heat-related illnesses, and where. Some data suggest recent rises in hospitalizations and emergency calls. But the data is short-term, and incomplete. Separately, we don’t have much data about air conditioning availability or use. All of this means Los Angeles is home to people who are vulnerable to heat in their housing, the place on which they spend more than half of their take-home pay. And only rarely do these vulnerable people have the ability to cool their homes. Most often, air conditioning is a condition of wealth, an economic privilege.

I’ll still be filling in holes in stories to come. But here’s what I’ve learned so far.

The absence of data is not the absence of a story. Academics, scientists, doctors, epidemiologists, private practice professionals and public health policymakers talked to me about what they know about urban heat. Each has a different responsibility to address the problem, yet they agreed on some essential truths: health data that describes heat’s impact is hard to come by, often for privacy reasons. Access to care, medical training, and insurance practices limit how often heat is a recorded influence to a health diagnosis, a cause of death, or a reason a kid sees a nurse in school. The data sets for heat’s health effects that do exist drastically underestimate heat sickness and death. Learning my way around these problems is a necessary base for my work, and a way into explaining why this is a difficult problem to solve.

Where data is sparse, creating your own data is valuable. Using open-source directions and consumer-available parts, I measured heat and humidity in homes in the San Fernando Valley and South Los Angeles. I like to say that that the data I’ve gathered is science-inspired, even if it lacks the rigor of a true scientific experiment. I worked in communities where I had contacts; I chose homes where central air conditioning didn’t exist, and tried to take readings in rooms lacking window air conditioning or fans. What that data told me is complicated — more complicated than these stories can capture. But visualizing that data with these stories has helped illustrate what the people I’ve met are up against: homes in which heat is high and remains high, even as the surrounding terrain cools down.

Stepping into the shoes of the people most vulnerable made my story stronger. When I began this project, I used prior research to narrow the potential neighborhoods in which I could work. Once in those neighborhoods, I listened to people, and watched where and how they lived, so that I could track heat where it was worst. I learned where to measure heat from the people I hung out with. Doing that made my data more relevant to the journalism and more resonant with the community.

I found as many experts as possible since no one expert exists. Of course I cross-referenced citations in scientific and epidemiological work. I also asked the experts I was consulting who else I should consult. I learned more from the policymakers who consulted diverse sources than the ones who consulted the same person over and over. All this work produced a web where I was eventually able to bring one person’s work to the attention of another who was just a few degrees away.

It’s okay to blend converging lines of evidence — carefully.  The art of freelancing puts a premium on being agreeable, and choosing your battles. Balancing that with a need for precision about science and medicine is a challenge. Reporters most often are not scientists, and are interpreting and summarizing results, not expanding on them.  

Reporting typically ends at publication. But when you engage the community, as this fellowship encouraged me to do, that’s not so much the case. My reporting was founded on community engagement from the beginning. And it’s been an important component. As I shared my project’s findings in the hottest parts of the city, I met with little surprise. But I did find a great deal of imagination: At a meeting of the Youth United Towards Environmental Protection in Pacoima, I listened as kids put together stories of heat risk based on their own lives, and the lives of their friends and families. Being humbled and continuing to learn was valuable.

Engagement strengthens reporting. I kept in mind what the at-risk people know, and how they live, from the beginning of my reporting. That informed how I told the stories about them, and to them, and to others. That meant we discussed stories by other people too: my friend Meghan McCarty at KPCC reported on the lack of bus shelters all over L.A., and I learned that bus shelters are a passion-inducing issue in the San Fernando Valley. Making that connection, I was able to talk to people at bus stops about how they experience heat and where they want to see more public shade.

Don’t be afraid to tweak your engagement along the way. It’s a mistake to ask people to give you feedback about how you’re talking to them and then ignore it. When someone from the community told me something we were doing wasn’t working, I tended to believe them. When I didn’t incorporate that lesson, even though I knew they were right, even where I had a legitimate reason for staying the course, it hampered my efforts.

When you open a conversation with the community, it’s worth your while to follow through on it. Once you ask people questions and tell them you’re going to bring them answers back — either in reporting, or in community conversations — following through is not only a requirement, it’s a benefit to you as a journalist.