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Extreme heat in Arizona brings the risk of burns. Here's how to protect yourself


Summer in Phoenix has been scalding and dangerous this year. Tuesday, the city was 110 degrees for a 19th consecutive day. And in such temperatures, simply touching everyday objects - a seat belt buckle, a garden hose - can burn you. Dr. Kevin Foster directs the Arizona Burn Center in Phoenix at Valleywise Health Medical Center. Dr. Foster, thanks for being with us.

KEVIN FOSTER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What are you seeing there?

FOSTER: Yeah, so this is a really tough summer for us. We had a nice, pleasant, mild spring. And then, June has - and July - have really come in with a vengeance. And we are seeing, really, a sharp uptick in people who are falling down, going down onto hot pavement, hot asphalt, and getting really, really terrible burns as a result of that.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. How do you treat that?

FOSTER: First of all, the burns tend to be really bad. Asphalt and concrete and sidewalks in Phoenix on a hot afternoon in direct sunlight oftentimes can reach 170 to 180 degrees. It only takes just a fraction of a second to get a pretty serious burn. And unfortunately, a lot of our people end up laying out there for minutes and sometimes even hours, and they end up with really horrible burns. And the way we treat that is we bring these people into the hospital. We have to support them. And almost all of them require surgery for skin grafting.

SIMON: Oh, my. You must be overworked.

FOSTER: Well, you know, this is our busy time of year, and we anticipate that it's going to be a tough, busy time for us. But this is abnormally busy right now.

SIMON: Even if people don't end up being burned, is there some hazard just to being outside under that kind of unrelenting sun?

FOSTER: Just being out in 110- to 115-, sometimes almost 120-degree weather in direct sunlight, it only takes a very short period of time to suffer heat prostration. And, you know, sometimes people end up with really bad central nervous problems, liver problems, kidney problems. That can really be a tough situation when people suffer heat stroke.

SIMON: What advice might you have, doctor, for people especially who might have to work outdoors?

FOSTER: You know, obviously, we recommend protective clothing. Keep the sun, direct sunlight, off your skin - a protective hat. Stay hydrated - lots of water. And take frequent breaks. Get into the shade or preferably into air conditioning. What we really worry about is people who aren't used to Arizona. Most Arizonans are pretty savvy about staying out of the heat and sunlight. The problem is oftentimes when people come down here, and they're just not used to it. And once you get out into this heat, it doesn't feel that bad. It's almost deceptive. And it's very easy to suffer, you know, the effects of heat and direct sunlight.

SIMON: I gather your clinic saw 85 patients for heat-related burns last summer. How does this summer compare so far?

FOSTER: Yeah, so that number, 85, is the number of people who we actually had to admit to the hospital. Most of them ended up in the ICU, and all of them required surgery. We saw probably four or five times that many people who we were able to treat as outpatients, whose burns were not as serious. And right now, we're - we probably hit close to 40 or 45 people who required admission to the hospital and surgery. So we are way ahead of the numbers compared to this time last year or any other year. And it's a little bit baffling to us. We don't really know why this is happening.

SIMON: I'm struck by something we said when we began our conversation, that even a seat belt buckle. People will park a car. Even if they think they've parked it in the shade, obviously, the sun moves. The car can heat up. They should be careful about things like that.

FOSTER: Yeah, cars are particularly dangerous because people don't think about it. But the interior of an automobile, particularly one with dark upholstery, can get to be 160 or 170 degrees. And just touching the steering wheel or - the worst thing to do is to touch something that's metal inside the car that's been exposed to direct sunlight like a seat belt buckle.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, Dr. Foster, the heat is with us. It shows no sign of letting up. Are you prepared?

FOSTER: I don't know that we're completely prepared. You know, we expect to be busy in the summertime, but we did not expect to be this busy. We are full. Our operating room schedule is full, and we've kind of hit critical mass right now. And if this is the future for us, we're going to have to make some alterations in how we do things.

SIMON: Dr. Kevin Foster is director of the Arizona Burn Center in Phoenix. Thanks so much for being with us.

FOSTER: Sure. Thank you. It's an honor talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.