With June being the hottest month in the history of the planet, and July looking like it’s going to be even hotter, being outside can be an extra sweat-inducing experience.
It might feel even toastier for Black folks and other people of color because we’re more likely to live in urban heat islands — neighborhoods with higher temperatures due to all the heat-absorbing asphalt, concrete, and steel.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Daytime temperatures in urban areas are about 1–7°F higher than temperatures in outlying areas and nighttime temperatures are about 2-5°F higher.”
It’s no wonder that from 2004-2018, Black people had the second highest number of heat-related deaths after Native folks.
But a solution developed over the past six years by researchers at Purdue University may be able to help: white paint.
Paint That Reflects Heat
This particular paint is so super white — the whitest ever created — that it reflects hot sun rays.
Xiulin Ruan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, has been studying extreme heat for 25 years and has been trying to make paint more resistant to heat for the past nine.
He tells Word In Black that his “new white paint is whiter than typical commercial white paints, and it cuts the absorption to the solar radiation by a factor of 5-10.”
The result, Ruan says, is that the “paint absorbs less solar heat than the infrared heat it emits and can cool surfaces below the ambient temperature.”
The scientific reason for this is that the paint has high levels of barium sulfate, a chemical compound used in cosmetics and photo paper. The barium sulfate particles in the paint are different sizes, and interestingly enough, this causes the particles to spread more of the light spectrum from the sun — which enables heat to essentially bounce off the paint.
How Will This Help Black Communities?
“Black and Brown communities are more vulnerable to the heat island effect as they generally have less access to air conditioning,” Ruan says.
That’s because installing a central air conditioning unit can cost up to $7,500, making it financially out of reach for many. The average Black household in the United States brings in $46,400 per year — so installing central AC would be 6% of their yearly income. But if the outside of houses or apartment buildings can be painted with his paint, the buildings won’t absorb as much heat.
In addition, asphalt is everywhere. About 93% of roads in the United States are made with asphalt, which absorbs more heat than natural surfaces. With heat-resistant paint comes the prospect of painting roads white — which would further cool our cities and towns.
The effects of coating roads and buildings could be significant. Jeremy Munday, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Davis, recently told The New York Times that if 1% to 2% of the earth’s surface was covered with this paint, global temperatures could stop rising.
Purdue’s paint could soon one day become a common solution — like planting more trees to increase shade — for ending urban heat islands. But first we have to get this super white paint into stores. Ruan and his team are currently in talks with potential corporate investors with the goal of making it commercially available.
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