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Legislation on Summer Practices Follows Athlete Deaths

27 Jun, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Heat Has Killed Young Athletes: What Event Owners Need to Know on New Laws

It’s a paradox: the parents and coaches who run onto the field of play to extract a youth player after a helmet-to-helmet contact injury are the same ones who shrug off summer heat during football camp as a rite of passage. At most, they might toss an extra bottle of water at a player.

Don’t count on that to last. A growing awareness of the dangers of heatstroke and a corresponding understanding that it can be fatal is taking root. And as football teams (as well as cheer squads and band members) head for their training camps (in which they spend significant time on outdoor fields), it’s something that is going to be – if not top of mind – at least close to the front. And owners of those events, as well as other outdoor sports like softball and baseball, need to be ready.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publishes a list of symptoms – and suggested actions to be taken – in the event of heat-related illnesses and urges anyone with outdoor activities to familiarize themselves with them.

According to the Collier County (Florida) News-Press, the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury has research indicating that from 1995 to 2015, 61 football players died from heat stroke (46 high school, 11 college, two professional, and two organized youth). Ninety percent of recorded heat stroke deaths occurred during practice.

Despite this, officials in the sunshine state are fighting an uphill battle with school administrators to counter the problem.

The Florida High School Athletic Association stated it would only mandate basic life-saving equipment in case of heat stroke if told to do so by lawmakers. Florida Sen. Kathleen Passidomo of Naples said she has begun working on legislation to mandate access to ice tubs for player immersion in cases of heat stroke after the state agency voted not to require the standard equipment or special thermometers, known as wet bulb globe thermometers (WGBTs) that measure heat stress.

“I’m going to sit down over the summer and see if I can work with the association so that we can craft a bill that works for everyone and accomplishes our goal of making sure students aren’t going to die from heat stroke,” Passidomo said in a June 12 news article. “It’s important that we work together.”

Spurring the legislation on is the memory of a high school football player who was taken off life support last summer following his heat-induced collapse at a practice. Zachary Polsenberg’s core temperature registered 107 degrees for more than an hour, on a day with a daytime high of 92.

An article in Forbes noted,

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 with hypothermia 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.

Around the nation, policies vary widely for practices held during hot weather. In Indiana, the Kokomo Tribune reported that a state bill would, if passed, mandate training for coaches and assistant coaches of interscholastic or intramural sports, on recognizing heat-related illness.

The article also notes, that last year, the Korey Stringer Institute (named for the Minnesota Vikings player who collapsed and died of heatstroke), ranked Indiana 28th in states with inclusive sports safety policies. The ranking did not break down the head, heart and heat practices but looked at combined policies Most of the top 15 states, including Hawaii, New Jersey, and Illinois, in the ranking required schools to have a policy addressing sport practices during hot weather.

In the Forbes article, Grundstein agreed that an increasing number of 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, the 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.

The danger of heat-related illnesses, Dr. Michelle Hawkins of the National Weather Service told Forbes, is that heat is taken for granted since it is, to many, just a fact of life, particularly in the summer.

“The CDC found that over 650 people die per year from exposure to extreme heat (the 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 others doctors recently wrote in a scholarly journal that hot, humid conditions are "the single most critical predisposing risk factor" associated with exertional heat illness.

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