Extreme heat is taking a toll on health and finances, survey finds A new NPR survey shows 11% of Americans have experienced extreme heat in the past five years and had health problems stemming from a lack of air conditioning at home.

Americans connect extreme heat and climate change to their health, a survey finds

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A new survey from NPR, Harvard University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds more than half of all Americans have felt the burden of extreme heat waves. In California, as Molly Peterson reports, that number is even higher.

MOLLY PETERSON, BYLINE: Almost every day, Minerva Contreras hangs laundry on a line in her backyard to avoid turning on the clothes dryer. And the kitchen isn't where she cooks a meal. Instead, her husband, Carlos, has built a roaster outside on cinderblocks.

MINERVA CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PETERSON: And she says she keeps a huge pot out back for cooking chicharrones and tamales.

Oh, it's beautiful

These are health measures. Forty-four-year-old Contreras says she takes them to keep heat, as much as possible, out of her small home near Bakersfield. When she's well, she picks radishes or tangerines in nearby fields. She has developed a lung tumor. It's benign so far, but it makes hot days harder.

CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PETERSON: She says it is very difficult because it is practically like not being able to breathe and that she definitely needs to be in a cool place. The new poll found more than two-thirds of Californians report feeling the impacts of heat - people like Contreras and her neighbors, children and older folks. When pollution meets heat, it makes existing health problems worse. Asthma rates here in California's Central Valley are high.

CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PETERSON: She says many people go through the same as her, even worse things. When the Contreras family first rented this brown four-bedroom ranch house, the central air conditioning didn't work. They pleaded with the landlord to fix the AC.

CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PETERSON: Contreras says she's noticed it getting hotter. Last year, one day went to a hundred and eleven degrees. The NPR, Harvard and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation survey asked whether Californians who suffered heat in recent years had health problems stemming from a lack of air conditioning at home. Fifteen percent said yes.

LUZ RIVAS: I think it could be even higher.

PETERSON: Democratic state lawmaker Luz Rivas knows the impacts of heat. She represents and grew up in a sweltering part of Los Angeles.

RIVAS: My mom would just pack us up in the car, and we would go to the mall and just walk around, spend the day there, right? Just to cool off.

PETERSON: Rivas is proposing legislation that would develop a system to rank heat waves, kind of like the way we rank hurricanes, to warn people and help them prepare.

RIVAS: Because it's going to get to a point where those DIY ways of dealing with heat are not going to work anymore. And I think that's what we need to face. And we don't want this to result in deaths.

PETERSON: Another proposed law sets up a huge fight. Already, tenants in California have a right to water and to heat. Rivas and other lawmakers are considering adding the right to be cool to the building code. Near Bakersfield, where Minerva Contreras lives, there were more than 60 days over a hundred degrees last year. She's not optimistic laws will change to help keep her cool.

CONTRERAS: (Speaking Spanish).

PETERSON: She says she would like it very much, but she always thinks that money wins more than everything. Contreras says running the air conditioner costs 600 to $800 a month. She's planning to pay this summer's electricity bill off in installments through next January.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Peterson in Los Angeles.

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