Football season is rapidly approaching. Camps for youth recreational leagues, high school, colleges and the NFL are starting in July when some heat indices (combination of temperature and humidity) are well into the upper 90s or 100s in some parts of the country. Inspired by social media posts yesterday noting that kids were in football camps in Georgia, I wanted to highlight the question, “Is excessive heat and youth football a dangerous mix?”
Coaches and parents would immediately pull kids from a lightning storm, yet the perception of heat as a risk is lower. Dr. Michelle Hawkins is the Climate, Weather and Health Lead in the National Weather Service (NWS) Climate Services Branch. She told me, CDC found that over 650 people die per year from exposure to extreme heat (most of any weather threat). These deaths are preventable. Heat is considered a silent killer. It doesn’t come in toppling down trees or damaging homes, and often people don’t even know that they are suffering from heat illness.
Three medical doctors recently wrote in a scholarly journal that hot, humid conditions are “the single most critical predisposing risk factor” associated with exertional heat illness. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, 52 football players died over the period 1995 to 2012 from exertional heat stroke (EHS).
Professor Andrew Grunstein of the University of Georgia (UGA) is an international expert on weather and heat-related issues. In 2012, he and colleagues published a studied noting that heat-related football deaths tripled between 1994 and 2009, and the state of Georgia led the way. Their study developed a national database with information on humidity, temperature, time of day and attributes (height, weight, position) of the football players who died from hyperthermia.Hyperthermia is when the core body temperature is elevated above normal (not to be confused withhypothermia which is abnormally low body temperature). Grundstein, who collaborates with the Korey Stringer Institute, pointed out that the heat index seemed to be increasing in more recent years and players, particularly linemen, have gotten larger in size. Both of these factors increase risk.
Competitive pressure to compete and lack of literacy on the dangers of heat are big challenges. I also believe misguided statements like “I did it when I was coming up” or “it will make them tougher” are dangerous. Many coaches don’t understand that changing climatological conditions and physical structure of kids today place them at greater risk. Further, experts point out that today’s kids spend less time playing outside and are not as acclimated to the heat (coupled with 10 to 20 extra pounds of pads). These facts may illustrate why many of the deaths or acute illness come during the first few days of practice under extreme heat conditions.
Signs of heat illness include: Exertion-associated muscle cramps or spasms, forced breathing, vomiting, confusion, dizziness, dark urine and heat syncope (periodic loss of consciousness). Some best practices for responding to these symptoms can be found here.Are there proactive efforts for youth football given what we know? In 2012, the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) adopted new guidelines after briefings from Professor Grundstein and Michael Ferrara, a former UGA professor of kinesiology (now a Dean at the University of New Hampshire). A press release pointed that new guidelines, require that the first week of practice consist of single-practice days with sessions no longer than two hours with helmets only. During the second week, teams can start two-a-day practices with full equipment, but they cannot have consecutive double-session days: a double-practice day must now be followed by a single-practice day. There has to be at least three hours of rest between sessions on a double-practice day and double-day sessions cannot exceed five hours of practice time.
Professor Grundstein emphasized that more heat safety policies are being implemented at the interscholastic level and youth sport levels. USA football, for example, has a good heat safety policy. But he cautioned many youth programs do not. There is definitely room for improvement in heat safety education for youth sports.
Scientists also continue to learn more. For example, Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT index) is the standard measure of environmental heat stress. It measures humidity, temperature and radiant temperature. Research indicates that a WBGT of 82 degrees is a critical threshold. The WBGT, via the radiant heat, accounts for the direct heat load on the athlete. Heat index does not. UGA researchers explained, modifications to the scale will include an increase in rest breaks, hydration periods, equipment modifications and duration of practice as heat stress rises. This provides schools, medical staff and coaches with flexibility in designing their practice to be as safe as possible said Bud Cooper, associate department head for the department of kinesiology.
I enjoy football as much as the next person so don’t take this article in the wrong way. I just want our kids to be safe.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President