Wilting flowers of May | Inquirer Opinion
Gray Matters

Wilting flowers of May

As a very senior citizen, I’ve gone through many summers, my childhood years marked mainly by fun and play, often by the sea, with special treats and memories of clan vacations in Baguio. In my young adult years, the summers were used for volunteer work in rural areas, which became full-time work as a young adult with nongovernment organizations.

After I began teaching at the University of the Philippines, we new teachers were often conscripted to handle summer classes. Although everyone complained about the heat, we made do with little or no air-conditioning, relying on pamaypay (fans) and electric fans, and rewarding ourselves with swimming, if there was a pool or beach. We survived but now that I am a senior citizen, I feel, and fear the heat waves.

This year especially, I see more of the adverse impact of the heat on humans, animals, and plants. Because I’m currently involved in a multi-country study looking at how people sense climate change, I’m constantly catching people’s comments about the heat, with the hope that we can incorporate these “sensory observations” into practical health advice.

We do have a stock of traditional knowledge about the perils of hot weather, couched in popular notions, the most notable being those around “pasma.” Many Filipinos refer to pasma in humans, symptoms like sweaty palms and tremors being attributed to exposure to extremes of heat and cold, e.g., washing hands in cold water after prolonged manual labor like ironing clothes that create heat. But many years ago, I was already hearing people talking about pasma in plants (but not, curiously, in animals), warning against watering plants early in the morning, cold and heat creating pasma. Unlike humans, plants simply wilt and die.


Filipino responses to heat can be complicated. People feel that in times of intense heat, running into an air-conditioned room may actually be harmful because what’s needed is to sweat and bring out the heat from inside the body. Electric fans? American medical anthropologist, Mark Nichter, likes to joke that the leading cause of illness in the Philippines is the electric fan, direct exposure is wrongly blamed for all kinds of ailments from facial paralysis to pneumonia.

An important popular perception of “dangerous” heat is the feeling of being enveloped by a combination of heat and humidity, again accompanied by an impaired ability to sweat. There’s science basis in such perceptions, with governments, including our own, now issuing advisories based on a heat index, combining temperature and humidity.

The heat index is meant as an early warning device for possible catastrophic consequences, notably heat strokes, which is the body overheating. Beyond heat strokes though, extreme heat triggers other health problems. In many cases, it isn’t the heat per se but the heat bringing about dehydration, which then brings about all kinds of symptoms from confusion to diarrhea.

Children and the elderly are more vulnerable to all the problems coming from the heat and, in many cases, the vulnerability is tied to an unawareness of what’s happening, especially with dehydration. Both children and the elderly may not be able to express what they’re feeling when they’re dehydrated until it reaches critical levels. Do a quick skin turgor (elasticity) check to find out. Gently pinch the back of the hand, or the area below the collarbone, or the abdomen. If the skin doesn’t snap back, you’re looking at dehydration.


“Keep rehydrated” is good but vague advice. Fluids with high levels of sugar, caffeine can actually dehydrate you. Stick to plain water, lots of water.

Vulnerability to dehydration is worse with animals. Their sweating is limited to paw pads and noses, and, when they’re dehydrated, they can’t tell you. You can do a skin turgor test, too, with them, pinching the skin around their shoulder blades.


Signs of thirst are more visible with dogs with their panting but even that may be overlooked—check how many bowls or pans of water you have in the house and you might find that even if you have several, many are probably bone dry because your pets are consuming much more water than usual. In urban poor areas, where animals are left to fend for themselves, dogs and cats die from heat and dehydration.

I’ve wondered what this year’s Flores de Mayo—festivals marked by lavish displays of flowers—will be like, given the heat wave which discourages people from going outdoors. Add on the impact of the heat waves on the flowers, wilting and wilted.

The saddest stories about the impact of heat on plants come from farmers: of paltry harvests and, like the tragedies of children, of stunting and early mortality.

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TAGS: Gray Matters, opinion

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