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Heatstroke Deaths: The Dangers Of Leaving Kids In The Car

July 15, 2016

No matter how hot it gets this summer, it will get hotter (and quicker) in a car.

A child left unattended in a car on a hot day, even momentarily, becomes vulnerable to heatstroke and possible death. Since 1998, an average of 37 children have died each year in the United States from the condition also known as hyperthermia, when the body cannot cool itself safely as the body temperature rises to dangerous levels.

Because children’s bodies absorb more heat than an adult’s body on a hot day, their body temperature can spike up to five times faster. Close to 90 percent of children who die from heatstroke in a car are 3 years old or younger.

Already, 18 children nationwide left in cars have died from heatstroke this year (through mid July), a threefold increase from this time last year, according to the National Safety Council. (Connecticut, with three child vehicular heatstroke deaths from 1998 through 2015, has one of the lowest per-capita rates in the country.)

Heat-Related Ilness

Total U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 2016: 18

Total U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 2015: 24

Total U.S. heatstroke deaths of children left in cars, 1998-present: 679

Average number of U.S. child heatstroke fatalities per year since 1998: 37
Source: Pediatrics Journal

The Risks

Within 20 minutes, a car interior’s temperature can increase up to 20 degrees. It’s not only during a heat wave. Heatstroke can happen in temperatures as low as 57 degrees. On an 80-degree day, the temperature inside a car with windows closed can exceed 120 degrees in an hour. Leaving the windows open slightly does not help lower the temperature.

When the core body temperature reaches about 104 degrees, the body’s thermoregulatory system falters and heatstroke begins. A core temperature that reaches 107 degrees is deadly.

Dr. Steven Powell, a pulmonologist on The William W. Backus Hospital Medical Staff, says symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • High body temperature with hot, dry skin (no sweating).

  • Rapid pulse.

  • Difficulty breathing.

  • Strange behavior, disorientation, confusion, hallucinations.

  • Nausea or vomiting.

  • Dizziness.

  • Seizure or coma.

In most cases, more than 54 percent, a child who dies from heatstroke in a car is left unattended accidentally by loving parents. About a third of the deaths are attributed to children who entered the car without the parents’ knowledge. In less than 12 percent of deaths, children are left deliberately by parents.

It’s against the law in several states, including Connecticut, to leave children under age 12 unattended in a car. In most cases in the state, it’s a misdemeanor, but a Ridgefield man was charged with criminally negligent homicide in the 2014 hot-car death of his 15-month-old son. (He eventually avoided jail, with a two-year conditional discharge sentence.)

Prevention

Because many of these heatstroke deaths in vehicles are caused when parents forget to drop their children at day care, as in the Ridgefield case, some care providers have altered their policies for added safety.

“Three years ago,” says Suzanne Dunn, manager of The Hospital of Central Connecticut’s Child Development Center, “we wanted to be proactive to make sure none of 'our children' are ever forgotten in a hot car when they are supposed to be at child care. It was decided that the easiest way for my staff and I to help was to call parents. If a child is expected at the center and has not arrived by 9 a.m., the parents are called to make sure the child has not been accidentally left in a car.”

The state Department of Public Health, which says anyone left inside a car can suffer serious heat-related illnesses or even death, suggests this precautions when traveling with children:

Never leave infants, children or pets in a parked car, even if the windows are cracked open.
To remind yourself that a child is in the car, keep a stuffed animal in the car seat. When the child is buckled in, place the stuffed animal in the front with the driver.

When leaving your car, check to be sure everyone is out of the car. Do not overlook any children who have fallen asleep in the car.

Also do not leave pets unattended. An animal can suffer brain damage, or even die, within 15 minutes. Remember, dogs have difficulty in extreme heat because they can cool themselves only by panting and sweating through their paw pads.

“The message today is simple,” says U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. “Look before you lock.”