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Sustainability Newsletter Header July 2014

Summer 2014

Director of Sustainability Chris O'Brien

Flip of the Switch

Flip the switch. And there is light. If you are like most people, that's about all you ever want to know about electricity. You expect it to be there when you need it. Otherwise, it is out of sight and out of mind.

Behind this marvel of modern convenience and reliability are 1,400 power plants and a tangle of more than 62,000 miles of electric transmission lines. Collectively known as "PJM," this electric grid serves more than 60 million people in the Mid-Atlantic region, including the entire Washington metropolitan region and extending as far west as Indiana, north to Pennsylvania, and south to northeastern North Carolina. 

The power plants that serve the PJM grid are fueled by a variety of sources, including coal, natural gas, and nuclear. I grew up in Pennsylvania, well known for the infamous Three-Mile Island nuclear meltdown, an abundant supply of coal, and more recently for rapid growth in natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." My dad used to play on coal heaps as a kid where he grew up in Scranton, PA. I was born down the road from there in Berwick, near a town called Centralia. Centralia is famous because in 1962 the coal mines beneath the town caught on fire.

Today, more than fifty years later, the mine is still on fire and Centralia is a ghost town. These days, the coal industry itself is beginning to flicker in parts in Pennsylvania, but many of those same areas are seeing a new economic boom from natural gas fracking. Unfortunately, fracking is also bringing a boom in pollution of many kinds, but it is especially despoiling drinking water. Nationally, new federal legislation requires coal plants to clean up their emissions, and meanwhile local and state governments are struggling to rein in the human health impacts and pollution excesses caused by fracking.

The good news is that the finite supply of polluting fossil fuels is increasingly seeing competition from clean and infinitely renewable energy sources throughout the PJM grid, especially from wind and solar power. This is where the story gets interesting for American University. After years of research and analysis, this past June AU announced a partnership with George Washington University and the GW Hospital to make the largest non-utility solar power purchase in America. The partners contracted with Duke Energy Renewables to construct 52 megawatts of solar panels in North Carolina, making it the largest solar photovoltaic park east of the Mississippi River. This solar power will provide about 50 percent of AU's and GW's electricity needs for the next 20 years. That may sound impressive, but what might surprise you is that the deal is expected to save the university about $14 million dollars in electricity costs over that 20-year period, assuming electricity costs continue to escalate at the same rate they have historically.

In addition to this large-scale offsite solar power purchase, AU has one of the largest onsite solar arrays in the Washington metro. For the rest of our electricity, we buy Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), which finance solar and wind power projects across the country, thereby entitling AU to the environmental benefits associated with those clean power supplies. All together, this means AU's entire electricity supply is clean and renewable.

What does all this mean for you? Well, it means you can continue to flip the switch and expect the lights to brighten your classroom, residence hall, or office, while knowing that your electricity isn't producing air pollution, releasing greenhouse gas emissions, or contaminating the water supply.

Sounds pretty good, right? Just don't forget to do your part and flip the switch back off when you leave the room, okay?


Chris O'Brien

Director of Sustainability

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American University to Source 50% Power from Solar

Solar on AU's Campus

In a major milestone in its commitment to achieve carbon neutrality, American University has entered into an agreement to source more than half its electricity from grid-delivered solar power. 

AU announced the 20-year solar power purchase along with partners George Washington University and George Washington University Hospital. The total project will supply the partners with 123 million kilowatt hours of emissions-free electricity per year, drawn from 243,000 solar panels at three sites in North Carolina. Comprising 52 megawatts of solar photovoltaic power, it is the largest non-utility solar power purchase agreement in the United States and the largest solar photovoltaic project east of the Mississippi River.

Learn more about the details of this historic project, and read a student's perspective on what this means for an AU education.

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Make A Green Difference on Campus: Apply to be A 2014-15 Green Eagle

Green Eagles help students in the Terrace Dining Room (TDR) reduce their food waste during a “Weigh the Waste” event.

Green Eagles help students in the Terrace Dining Room (TDR) reduce their food waste during a “Weigh the Waste” event.

Now Hiring

Interested in promoting sustainability on campus? The Office of Sustainability is now hiring Green Eagles for the 2014-15 school year.

If you are interested in living sustainably and helping to make AU a more sustainable campus, this is the job for you. The Office of Sustainability is hiring students to be Green Eagle sustainability peer educators. Students who live on campus will work directly in the residence halls in which they live to educate their peers about living sustainably. Twelve positions (one or two per residence hall) are available. Four additional positions are available for students who live off-campus to help lead sustainability tours, support sustainability initiatives in academic and administrative buildings, and give class presentations. All Green Eagles work 5-10 hour per week, including mandatory weekly training sessions, and earn $10 per hour between August and May. All high-energy, creative students who are passionate about social, environmental, and economic sustainability are encouraged to apply by visiting and searching for "Sustainability." Please include a current resume and a cover letter describing the sustainability issue that is most important to you. Applications are now being accepted and hiring will begin in August. Please contact the Office of Sustainability at with any questions. 

Learn why it's great to be a Green Eagle

Capital Partners Solar Project: A Student Perspective

By Nathan Strauss, SOC/CAS '15

Solar Panels on AU's Campus

Toward the end of June, American University announced exciting news: We're going solar! Beginning in January 2016 more than half of our university's electricity will come directly from solar power. While this news may not have caught the eye of the general student body, for sustainability-minded students the reveal was a more than welcome surprise. 

Not only is this a step closer to realizing our goal of carbon neutrality, it's something I am proud of as an AU student. When I enrolled at AU, I did so unaware of its position as a leader in sustainability. Since then, our school has only continued to take initiative as a representative of the types of practices all universities should strive to exhibit. With the announcement of the Capital Partners Solar Project, I feel that I can enter my senior year comfortable in the knowledge that I will be graduating from a university that exemplifies many of the qualities that I admire in an institution—to our 2020 goal of carbon neutrality, and beyond.

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GO! Green in 2014-15 with AU's Green Office (GO!) Program

Green Office participants receive awards

How are you GO!ng green in your office this year? AU's Green Office (GO!) program has been improved greatly this year to provide an opportunity to engage your entire office in AU's nationally ranked sustainability initiatives. By making sustainable choices related to transportation, energy efficiency, zero waste, sustainable food and dining, and more, offices can earn points for their GO! Certification and compete for prizes from the Office of Sustainability.

The new AsustainableU online platform makes it easier than ever to participate in GO! Simply navigate to, create an account, upload a profile picture, join your office or department's team, and start completing actions to track the difference you're making on campus. Each month, prizes will be awarded to the top-performing individuals and offices. 

Learn more about GO!

Join us on Wednesday, August 13 at 1 the SIS Founders Room for an informational luncheon. Enjoy lunch on us, learn more about what GO! can do for your office, and register your office for participation. Attendees also will receive a special GO! gift. Click here to RSVP by Friday, August 8.

What new green heights will your office reach this year? Please contact the Office of Sustainability with any questions at or x6262.

Let's GO!

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AU Graduates Pledge Sustainability

Graduation Pledge Taker

AU students' active pursuit of sustainability doesn't end when they don caps and gowns at commencement. This May, as hundreds of new AU graduates walked across the stage, they also displayed their commitment to sustainability by proudly wearing a green ribbon on their regalia. The ribbon was awarded for taking AU's Green Graduation Pledge, which reads:

"I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job or other position I consider, and will improve these aspects within any organization to which I belong."

This year, nearly 350 graduating students took the pledge. Two thirds of the students graduated with a bachelor's degree, with the School of International Service and College of Arts and Sciences having the most pledge-takers, although students from all of AU's degree-granting schools and colleges, including the Washington College of Law, participated in 2014.

The Green Graduation Pledge is part of a national movement, run by the Graduation Pledge Alliance (GPA). The GPA has been administering the pledge at schools across the nation since 1987. This year marks AU's fourth year of participation. 

Want to take the pledge for 2014-15? Get a head start on the school year and click here to pledge now.

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Welcome Week Program Produces Campus Environmental Leaders

By Nathan Strauss, SOC/CAS '15

Explore DC students pose for a photo during the 2012 program. Billie Case, CAS ’16 is 9th from the left, wearing pink.

Explore DC students pose for a photo during the 2012 program. Billie Case, CAS ’16 is 9th from the left, wearing pink.

Twenty members of the Class of 2018 will spend part of this year's Welcome Week experiencing firsthand what makes AU number one in campus sustainability. The Sustainable Campus, Sustainable City: A Green Campus in America's Greenest College Town program, organized by the Office of Sustainability, enters its third year as a unique experience for first-year students. 

The program will feature a tour of DC's largest solar array (located on AU's campus), green buildings, green roofs, and AU's own rooftop apiary (beehives). Students will have the opportunity to meet prominent sustainability experts, some of whom are AU alumni, tour some of DC's sustainable infrastructure, and explore some of DC's remaining wetlands by canoe.  

Past program participants have gone on to become leaders in campus sustainability. Billie Case, a rising junior environmental studies major had her first taste of sustainability at AU through the Sustainable Campus, Sustainable City program. She since has become an assistant coordinator of the Green Eagle sustainability peer educators, which operate through the Office of Sustainability. When asked what she found to be most exciting about the program, Case noted that, "It was cool to learn about all the sustainability initiatives and features on campus and get an interest-specific volunteering experience." 

Case also enjoyed building a working solar-powered phone charger, an activity that has become an annual favorite of this program and which participants in this year's program will have the chance to do as well.

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Students Find Simple Way to Save AU Water and Money

By Ravi Raman and Emily Curley

Splash to Savings Participants

Recently, academic research, an on-campus service project, and Earth Month coincided to introduce an innovative new method for water conservation that promotes sustainability and financial savings for American University.

The innovation—to adjust the flow rate of water fixtures on campus—originated from Kiho Kim's University College Sustainable Earth class and Vicky Kiechel's Sustainable Design class, both of which were investigating opportunities for saving water on campus.

As part of their studies, students in the classes measured the flow rate of water fixtures on campus and realized that AU could be more efficient with its water use. They shared their findings with Office of Sustainability staff members who then calculated the amount of water and money that could be saved based on the current flow rate and the usage of each sink at the university.

How much water did they save? Learn more about the student project by reading the full story.

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21st Annual Campus Beautification Day Draws AU Community Together

By Mark Feist

Campus Beautification Day

AU celebrated the close of the spring semester with the annual Campus Beautification Day event, now in its 21st year. However, did you know that Campus Beautification Day (CBD) planning starts in the middle of winter? As a matter of fact, the CBD Team begins to meet in early January with a work group comprising Mark Feist and Katherine Kirlin as co-chairs and representatives from American University staff, students, and faculty. Details such as barbeque menu, T-shirt design, activity sites, special guests and speakers, as well as green partners such as Casey Tree and The Cherry Blossom Festival are determined. The date also is set well in advance and always falls the Tuesday before Freshman Day (Wednesday, if it rains).

In the true spirit of CBD, the relationships between faculty, staff, and students were enhanced through cooperation and team building, as once again the day was spent beautifying the campus. This year, more than 350 volunteers participated in spreading 240 cubic yards of mulch and planting 220 trees, shrubs, and ground covers, as well as 3,800 perennials and grasses.

Although it's hard to picture now when the sun is shining, next winter when snow is falling and temperatures fall below freezing take heart in knowing that there will be a group already planning for spring to arrive on campus.

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Tales from the Wasteland: Student Move-Out Moves Toward Zero Waste

By Helen Lee, Zero Waste Coordinator

Project Move-Out Logo

Every year, when students leave campus at the end of the semester, they leave behind tons of usable materials including working refrigerators unopened food and toiletries, and bags of clothes. To reduce AU's waste sent to landfills and save the university money, Facilities Management partners with ARAMARK Housekeeping, Housing and Dining Programs, the Residence Hall Association, and the Office of Sustainability to put together Project Move-Out. 

This year, during the spring semester move-out period, containers were set out near the elevators on each floor to collect left-behind clothes, shoes, and other textiles including bedding, towels, linen, and tapestries. The items were sent to Community Recycling to be donated, sold, reused, or recycled. Boxes were also organized in kitchen and lounge spaces to collect kitchen items such as pots, pans, dishes, cups, and utensils. These items were donated to A Wider Circle, a non-profit organization founded by an AU alum that helps homeless people in transition homes. Unopened, non-perishable food and toiletry items also were collected and donated to Capital Area Food Bank. Books were collected on the first-floor lobbies of the residence halls to benefit the AU Study Abroad Program. 

The team also sent out tips to residents in the halls to pack up stuff in advance, store on campus if they planned to return, or sell/exchange items using online resources such as AU Free & For Sale Facebook Group, Craigslist, Ebay, and Amazon. AU's Recycling Crew and ARAMARK Housekeeping also were instrumental during move-out and helped the university get closer to its zero waste goals.

Do you know where to recycle batteries, plastic bags, or even clothing on campus during the school year? Click here to learn more about Zero Waste at AU.

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Summer Innovations: Sustainability in Education and Research

Although many students and faculty members are away from campus this summer, there is still fascinating work being done in every school and college at American University to teach, research, and integrate sustainability across curricula. Whether in the laboratory or across the world, AU's green WONKs are advancing the forefront of sustainability in a variety of fields.

Faculty Research Spotlight: Green Roofs Keep Pollutants Out of Urban Waterways

By Rebecca Basu

American University environmental science professor’s research shows green roofs that use a special foam instead of soil capture pollution while reducing energy use.

American University environmental science professor’s research shows green roofs that use a special foam instead of soil capture pollution while reducing energy use.

Rooftop gardens, or green roofs, are known to reduce energy use in buildings and catch stormwater runoff, but new research from American University shows that green roofs also absorb pollutants. The research, which takes on an area that previously has not been explored widely by scientists, has implications for how cities can improve the health of their rivers, streams, and estuaries. 

"The potential is that institutions and businesses could reduce their pollution footprint," said Stephen MacAvoy, assistant professor of environmental science at AU. "If large numbers of green roof systems were installed throughout Washington, D.C., they would contribute greatly to keeping harmful nutrients and suspended solids found in runoff from entering the city's waterways."

Want to learn more about green roofs? Click here to read more about the work of Professor Stephen MacAvoy, and watch a video of Professor MacAvoy's work featured on WJLA.

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Student Research Spotlight: Making A Splash on Rhode Island's Oyster Reefs

By Nathan Strauss, SOC/CAS '15


Rising College of Arts and Sciences senior Daniel Pasquale is making a splash in Rhode Island this summer. As the recipient of a fellowship through the Environmental Protection Agency's Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) program, he has been enjoying the chance to intern for an EPA office in the state. 

Daniel has been engaging in oyster reef restoration, which he says is an "ecosystem service-based" way of cleaning coastal waterways. Oyster reefs play a crucial role in maintaining water quality in many wetland environments, as well as influencing water current circulation in estuaries. 

"I am working on a project of my own design, where I am looking at the relationship between sediment chlorophyll A levels and oyster density in man-made reefs," Daniel reported. "I hope to make a PowerPoint presentation from this project, and eventually a paper."

Daniel's interests in water quality and sustainability were solidified during his first year at AU as a member of Professor Kiho Kim's Sustainable Earth University College program. Kim's current work translates well into Dan's greater research goals, which include monitoring bacteria levels in the Potomac River following storm events in the Washington region—something that he also investigated as part of his University College program, and will continue to work with Professor Kim on as part of his GRO fellowship. "I'm looking forward to doing my own research project at AU over the next year relating to water quality in the Potomac River, in which I hope to apply some of the environmental monitoring techniques I used this summer," he says.

Daniel received one of only 40 GRO fellowships awarded nationwide by the EPA this year.

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SIS Summer Session in Brazil Explores Rural Livelihoods

By Rachel Teter

Rural Livelihoods Students

This summer, the School of International Service offered a unique practicum and course in Brazil, led by Assistant Professor Eve Bratman, called Forests and Livelihoods: Rural Development in Brazil. The program allowed ten SIS graduate students to explore many facets of Brazilian society, politics, and environmental issues while also working with a research and educational center in Brazil's Atlantic Forest. We asked Rachel Teter, a participating student, to share some of her impressions. 

"Having the opportunity to stay in four different parts of such a beautiful country while learning about its vibrant culture, history, and people was exciting enough. Combine that with the shared electricity of being in a country obsessed with soccer during the World Cup puts the experience in the 'once in a lifetime' category."

"Over the course of twenty-five days our group attended lectures at the Rio-based university Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), visited the UNESCO World Heritage town of Ouro Preto-a Brazilian "Gold Rush" town, traveled to Belo Horizonte-the capital of Minas Gerais state, and spent time in Rosario de Limeira, home of the Iracambi Research Center."

Read more of Rachel's discoveries and adventures here, and compare the perspectives of other participants on the group's blog.

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Students Win National Sustainability Awards and Recognition

Alyssa Frederick Braciszewski conducting research

Alyssa Frederick Braciszewski conducting research

Big Year for the Sciences at AU

By Patty Housman

It was a banner spring awards season for College of Arts and Sciences students in the sciences, who won Fulbright and National Science Foundation grants for graduate work, as well as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ernest F. Hollings Fellowships, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships, an Environmental Protection Agency Fellowship, and a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention for undergraduate study. 

Learn more about award winners in the sciences.

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Eric Rodriguez, CAS/BA '14, and Caroline Brazill, SIS/BA '15, this year's Truman Scholars from American University, flank Joan Echols, associate director of the Office of Merit Awards

Eric Rodriguez, CAS/BA '14, and Caroline Brazill, SIS/BA '15, this year's Truman Scholars from American University, flank Joan Echols, associate director of the Office of Merit Awards

2014 Outstanding Year for National Scholarship Success at AU

By Devin Symons

Fulbright. Boren. Udall. Pickering. Truman. What do these names have in common? Two things: they're all prestigious national scholarships and fellowships, and American University (AU) students and alumni earned all of them in 2014.

Rachael Somerville, CAS/SIS/BA '15, was named AU's 13th Udall Scholar since 2007. AU remains second in the U.S. in the number of Udall Scholars during the past eight years. The Udall Scholarship provides support for sophomores and juniors committed to careers related to the environment, tribal public policy, or Native American health care. Rodriguez, one of this year's Truman Scholars, was AU's Udall Scholar in 2013.

There are plenty more award winners this year. Click here to read more about them all.

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Green Chemistry: Professors Improve Furniture Smoldering Test

By Rebecca Basu

Furniture Smoldering Test

American University chemistry researchers and scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) discovered a way to improve a test that gauges how well upholstered furniture can resist smoldering combustion to delay the possible onset of fire. The research results are available online in the scientific journal, Polymer Degradation and Stability.

Modified Cellulose as "Green" Flame Retardant

The finding of the improved smoldering test came about as a result of research on non-toxic "green" flame retardants by AU associate professor of chemistry Doug Fox, Mauro Zammarano, and their colleagues. The team focuses on molecular chemistry research using ingredients from natural materials such as cellulose. Cellulose, the most abundant polymer on earth, is an effective reinforcing fiber for polymer composites, but it is extremely flammable. Fox's team modifies cellulose, often with phosphates or silicon-containing compounds. Modified cellulose acts as a flame retardant and a reinforcing phase, so that when blended with plastics, the fire resistance of the composite increases without weakening, as is often the case with other flame retardants.

Effective flame retardants in furniture delay time for ignition and the spread of flames, and the researchers envision a future where industry embraces green flame retardants. Currently, there are few options for affordable flame retardants that are effective, and the ones available are increasingly unpopular due to toxicity concerns.

Find out more about the study that is - sustainably - setting polymer research aflame.

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SPA's Center for Environmental Policy Continues Groundbreaking Work

Reilly Award Winners

Children's Health Advocate and National Sustainability Leader Recognized at William K. Reilly Environmental Leadership Awards

On April 24, 2014, Nse Obot Witherspoon, Executive Director of the Children's Environmental Health Network and Daniel C. Esty received the William K. Reilly Awards for Environmental Leadership. 

Nse Obot Witherspoon was introduced by Center for Environmental Policy Advisory Board member Stanley Abramson who praised her work advocating for the protection of children from environmental health risks such as lead, air pollutants, and other toxics. Ms. Witherspoon shared stories of the effects of environmental hazards on children's ability to learn, grow and thrive, and the importance of addressing these challenges through partnerships and policies. Daniel Esty was introduced by Center for Environmental Policy Advisory Member Stephen Harper who recognized Esty's contributions to Connecticut where he served as Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection, and to federal environmental policy through his work at the US EPA. Esty's accomplishments include a Comprehensive Energy Strategy and a clean energy finance bank, among many others. Esty is well known for facilitating productive collaborations between the private and public sector to achieve environmental goals and was an early pioneer of sustainability metrics.

In addition to the awards program, William K. Reilly introduced former Senator Bob Graham who spoke about his experiences facilitating collaboration across divergent stakeholders, including in his role as co-chairman of the BP Oil Spill Commission. 

See pictures and read more about the award ceremony.

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Partnership on Technology, Innovation, and the Environment

CEP Hosts Water Technology Workshop

On June 27, the Center for Environmental Policy hosted an Expert Workshop on Water Technologies as part its role in the Partnership on Technology Innovation and the Environment. In addition to American University, partnership members include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership at Wharton. The partnership has been working since January 2014 to help advance the deployment of water technologies and financing innovations for nutrient reduction and wastewater treatment. 

Click here to read more.

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William Reilly

William K. Reilly

CEP Seeks William K. Reilly Interns for Fall 2014 Semester

The Center for Environmental Policy (CEP) is pleased to accept internship applications for students in the School of Public Affairs' Masters of Public Policy and Masters of Public Administration programs for a fall 2014 internship placement.

The internship program aims to build the capacity of the next generation of environmental leaders by matching interns with an environmental non-profit organization for one semester.

Visit the CEP website for more information and application instructions. 

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Green the Dream and Beat the Heat

Summer Heat Safety Tips

Adapted from article by Leanne Wright for the Facilities Visionary Newsletter

Summer Heat Safety

Stay hydrated and kick the bottle

Fill up your reusable bottle and carry it with you throughout the summer. Drink water (5-7 oz.) every 15 minutes, even if you aren't thirsty. In hazardous heat situations, the body loses water faster than the brain can induce thirst. Avoid caffeine and alcohol 24 hours before and during exposure to elevated heat. 

Replace salts and minerals

Salt is excreted from the body when you sweat. For your body to continue important processes, small amounts of salts and minerals should be consumed. Mix a small amount of sports drink or juice into your water or eat a light snack. Undiluted sports drinks typically provide much more salt and/or sugar than your body needs.

Wear appropriate clothing and sunscreen

Wear a hat and light colored clothing. Clothing should cover as much skin as possible, including arms, legs, and neck. Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above should be applied throughout the day to uncovered skin, such as the hands and nose.

Pace and acclimate yourself

Until your body has had ample time to adjust to working in a hot environment, keep your work load light and take frequent breaks. Slowly increase the intensity of your work as you are able. Stop all activity and rest immediately if you start feeling lightheaded, weak, or faint. Acclimation can take up to 14 days, so be patient while your body adjusts to the new demands.

Take breaks in the shade

Shade provides shelter away from the excess heat that the sun radiates onto the skin. During work breaks, remove yourself from direct sun exposure to allow your skin an opportunity to cool.

It's cool to save energy

While running your air conditioning is one way to stay cool, consider closing your blinds or shades in the afternoon when the sun is at its most intense to lower your home's temperature without having to crank the AC. When you're not at home, close the blinds and turn off the AC completely.*

*If you have pets at home, please do not allow your home to get too hot as our furry, scaly, and feathery friends can also overheat easily.

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