Most people in Seattle don’t have air-conditioning, since the average temperature in June is only around 69 degrees. But the temperature may top 100 degrees Fahrenheit this weekend. Portland, Oregon, may well hit 113 degrees.
It’s hard to find air conditioners at local stores in the Pacific Northwest these days, and they aren’t an ideal solution anyway: A small unit in one room can use as much electricity as four refrigerators, making your power bill spike and adding to the global warming that is leading to more extreme heat in the first place. When everyone switches on air-conditioning at the same time, it can also lead to blackouts. For those who can’t find or afford an air conditioner—or who want to avoid getting one—here are some ways to cool down.
Pull the shades
“There’s a lot that can be done to prevent indoor temperatures from rising,” says Brendon Haggerty, a program supervisor at the Multnomah County Health Department in Portland. Closing the blinds or shades during the day can slow the heat gain from the sun pouring in the window. Blackout curtains or cellular shades, which are more insulating, can help even more, as can solar film, which sticks on windows to reflect away sunlight. It also helps to keep electronics and lights off, and to cook with a microwave or outside on a grill instead of using the stove.
Ventilate at night
When the temperature outside drops at night, open the windows and set up fans to suck in cooler air or blow out hot air. Open opposing windows to create a breeze. In the Pacific Northwest, unlike some other parts of the country, temperatures tend to fall quickly at night. One of the challenges of the current heat wave, though, is the fact that it’s expected to stay hot at night. “We’re about to go into a heat wave here where the nighttime lows are equivalent to the historic highs,” Haggerty says. That can be dangerous for people who are the most vulnerable to heat illnesses, because their bodies can’t cool down and recover from the extreme heat of the day.
Try cooling towels
In studies with athletes, scientists have found that the “ICE” strategy—an ice-filled towel around the neck, along with a cold towel on the head and thighs—can effectively cool someone down. Because those spots are pulse points, where blood vessels are close to the skin’s surface, they can cool quickly (wrists, elbows, and feet also have pulse points).
Hack together a “swamp cooler”
If humidity levels are very low, a simple device called a swamp cooler can help. Hang a damp cloth or set a bowl of ice in front of a fan, and as the water evaporates the air will get slightly cooler. While it might seem obvious, a recent study validated the idea that spraying yourself with water and sitting in front of a fan will also cool you down.
Visit a cooling center
If an underlying health condition like heart disease puts you at a greater risk of heat illness and you can’t get an air conditioner, consider visiting a local cooling center. Portland, for example, will open several air-conditioned spaces to the public, including, for the first time, two cooling centers that will be open 24 hours a day.
Take care outside
When workers have to be outside, employers should shift their hours if possible and consider rescheduling the most difficult jobs, Haggerty says. Multnomah County is considering starting some outdoor crew work at 4:30 a.m., when temperatures are lower. Employers should also offer shade and frequent water breaks. “An additional concern about outdoor workers is that often on sunny days, we generate more ground-level ozone or smog,” he says. “And that’s a respiratory irritant that peaks in the late afternoon. So people with any kind of respiratory sensitivity should take extra precautions.”
As climate change progresses, extreme heat keeps getting more common and more extreme. Last week, in another heat wave, Las Vegas set a new daily record. California’s Death Valley reached 128 degrees. Phoenix topped 115 degrees for five days in a row; on June 17, as many as nine apparent heat-related deaths were recorded in the area. Doctors warned about third-degree burns from hot pavement. If emissions continue on the current trajectory, by the middle of the century the number of days that feel hotter than 100 degrees in U.S. cities will more than double.
Cutting emissions means that future summers will be less miserable. Cities can also redesign themselves to help lower temperatures, including adding cool roofs, lighter-colored streets, and green space and trees; encouraging people to walk and bike instead of driving heat-generating cars; and incentivizing new building features, like windows that can automatically close and open themselves to cool down.
While health departments don’t work on these interventions directly, Haggerty says that he’s in touch with other departments in Portland as the city plans ways to strategically plant trees and lower the urban “heat island” effect, the fact that pavement and buildings trap heat and make cities hotter. It’s part of a larger approach to help cities prepare for more inevitable heat. “I think that’s something that health departments across the world are working on—improving our response to events in the near term,” he says, “and then developing longer-term interventions that can protect folks.”