AC units can be difference between life, death

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The blistering heat of summer can be a killer, and in many cases, air conditioning is the difference between life and death.

At least 13 deaths in St. Louis this summer are suspected to be heat-related as the temperature has reached or exceeded 100 degrees on eight days.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that many of the deaths have involved people who either didn't have air conditioners, didn't have the unit on, or didn't have a properly-functioning air conditioner.

Annie Mae Long, 79, of St. Louis, died of heatstroke earlier this month, just feet away from a window unit that hadn't been turned on. She was found in her home with the windows closed.

A neighbor said Long was worried about money.

"She said she didn't know how she was going to make it," said Sandra Washington. "I guess she figured up her bills and decided she couldn't afford the air."

The St. Louis Clergy Coalition is beginning a drive to get people to check on their neighbors and relatives. The coalition is working with Cool-Down St. Louis, an organization that has given away thousands of air conditioners to needy households.

The campaign is aimed at reminding people to stop worrying about their electric bill. Missouri prohibits utilities from turning off electricity June 1 through Sept. 30 if the temperature is forecast above 95 degrees or 105 heat index.

"An air conditioner costs a few bucks a day to run. It isn't worth your life to save a few bucks," said Gentry Trotter, a spokesman for the coalition.

Still, worry over utility bills has doubled the number of calls to the United Way's 211 help line. Spokeswoman Carrie Zukoski said the service averaged 458 calls a day until temperatures broke 100 two weeks ago. Since then, there have been 808 per day on average from people seeking air conditioners or fans, or inquiring about cooling center locations.

Heat deaths in the St. Louis area have declined over the years, thanks largely to air conditioning. This year's total would be the most in the region since 19 died of heat-related illness in 2001. The worst year in recent memory was 1980, when 18 days of triple-digit temperatures were blamed in 153 deaths. But in 1980, many poor people didn't have air conditioners and kept their windows shut for safety reasons. Now, nearly everyone has at least a window unit.

Still, some people are reluctant to turn them on.

"They say they've lived their lives in St. Louis and survived 1954 and 1980. They're from the Depression and they can handle it," Pam Walker, city health director, said of the elderly who won't use air conditioning. "But they're not 30 years old anymore. The heat is wearing them down."

It could be a while before the weather takes a cooler turn.

"Unfortunately, we don't see an end to it, at least not seven days out," said Jayson Gosselin, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

The blistering heat of summer can be a killer, and in many cases, air conditioning is the difference between life and death.

At least 13 deaths in St. Louis this summer are suspected to be heat-related as the temperature has reached or exceeded 100 degrees on eight days.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that many of the deaths have involved people who either didn't have air conditioners, didn't have the unit on, or didn't have a properly-functioning air conditioner.

In some cases, elderly residents and others on fixed income shy away from using air conditioners because they're afraid they can't pay the electric bills. But Missouri prohibits utilities from turning off electricity during periods of extreme heat.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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