Safety first: How leaving kids, pets in hot vehicles can be deadly

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published August 5, 2014

The perils of heatstroke are very real, especially when in a vehicle that is much hotter than the temperature outside. When a young child or a pet is left to sit in a vehicle, danger instantly increases as a result of negligence or honest forgetfulness.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) warns against leaving children in the car, as heatstroke is one of the leading causes of death for that demographic. The NHTSA referenced data from the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences, which confirmed that at least 44 children lost their lives due to being left in unattended motor vehicles in 2013.

National data for this year has shown that 19 children have died in vehicles. Reports show that forgotten children are 52 percent of the demographic related to heat-related deaths in automobiles.

In an effort to curb such an avoidable circumstance, the NHTSA has partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Safe Kids Worldwide and the Administration for Children and Families to spread awareness via social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

It was part of National Heatstroke Prevention Day, which took place July 31. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently spoke at a childhood development center in Washington, D.C., as part of the “Where’s your baby? Look before you lock” campaign — which is meant to instill in adults a sixth sense of knowing and realizing that a child may helplessly be left in an unbearably warm vehicle.

“The majority of these cases are accidental tragedies that can strike even the most conscientious and loving parents and caregivers, but they can be stopped,” Foxx said during the conference, according to a NHTSA press release. “Even one heatstroke death is one too many because every death caused by leaving a child unattended in a hot car is 100 percent avoidable.”

Many know the basics of the situation: it’s very warm outside, a child is forgotten and death can unfortunately be at the doorstep. But as Jeremy Fischer, a family medicine physician and program coordinator at Henry Ford Macomb, said there are physiological effects that lead from everything being fine to things going downhill in a hurry.

Dehydration can quickly occur and the heart may begin to develop an abnormal rhythm. That can quickly lead to the stopping of a beating heart, all while the brain discontinues using blood and chances of survival reach a minimum.

“The body can compensate for some heat, and stuff happens in the heat (like sweating), but once body temperature reaches 170 degrees, organs can shut down,” Fischer said. “There is no timetable; it depends on the color of the interior (darker interior absorbs more heat), how hot it is. … It doesn’t even have to be 80 degrees. When the temperature is above 70 (degrees), cars can reach in the 100s-130s.”

Fischer said that heatstroke deaths occur not because of intention but because of absent-mindedness. People may forget about an infant due to the way car seats are situated in vehicles. Fischer recommended leaving something with a baby, such as a cellphone or wallet, as a way to be mindful of its presence when the parents or guardian gets out of the vehicle.

A similar process occurs when it comes to pets. Owners may think it’s safe to run into a store for 15-20 minutes while having the window cracked, only to come back and find that their respective pet is harmed by the heat.

Pam Porteous is a network manager at Animal Care Network, which is an outreach program based in Pontiac. Many animals in the program live outdoors, so she is all too familiar with making sure the dogs there stay hydrated.

“Heat stroke can happen in as little as 10 minutes,” Porteous said. “We just think it’s safer to leave your animals at home than take them in your car in the summertime. You could crack the windows but the temperature still rises very quickly.

“(Dogs’) body temperatures just rise and rise, and they don’t have a cooling system, so their organs start to suffer and they could go in shock or pass out.”

Pets — especially dogs — feel an increased heat wave even when windows are cracked in unattended vehicles. Porteous said owners enjoy taking their dogs with them during warmer months because they are companions, but the risks associated with over-exhaustion may lead to a trip to an emergency clinic.

Another similarity between children and pets are long-term effects that can result from being a victim of heat stroke. Brain damage can result from a coagulation of blood due to rising temperatures.

The overall message everyone should know and adhere to is a simple one: prevent the situation before it occurs.

“We’ve been much more cognizant with the news reporting lately,” Fischer said. “In general, we give the guidance not to leave kids in the car alone.”