Extreme Heat can be a Killer
Canada is experiencing more extremely hot days and longer periods of heat than during the late 20th century and it is going to get worse. Every year, about people die from heat related causes in Canada's big cities. In 2009, Vancouver saw a dramatic increase in the death rate during a week-long extreme heat event. Rather than simply extreme temperatures, it can be just the temperature change as well as a lack of adaptation that's threatening.
Those living in BC's coastal northern regions are the most susceptible to these changes. In those populations, seniors, people on certain medications, young children, low income, and socially isolated people are most at risk. Cities can make it worse. With the urban heat island effect, concrete and pavement absorb the sun's rays. Air pollution can produce and trap even more heat worsening heat related illness.
So how do we protect people's health? Because the majority of BC municipalities don't have a plan to take care of their residents during an extreme heat event, the BCCDC has produced a preparedness guide. This includes locating community partners that can help, identifying municipal facilities that can be used as cooling shelters or water access points and communicating what people need to know. In the long term, it's a municipality's physical and social structure that will protect people from extreme heat. Municipal incentive programs and building codes can result in better heat insulation through innovations such as green or heat reflective roofs. Expanding and protecting tree canopies and providing public drinking fountains help too.
Infrastructure is important but so is social organization. People living in close communities do better in climate change-related events. In the 1995 Chicago heatwave, low-income African-American communities, where people didn't know their neighbors, saw increased death rates compared to equally impoverished Hispanic neighborhoods. The difference was the social inclusivity and openness in the Hispanic areas. We need to find innovative ways to bring neighbors together. We need to build cities where people can feel safe and get to know their neighbors in walkable neighborhoods that feature parks community shade spots and other communal spaces for all to enjoy.
Heat health plans work! In Montreal, strategies such as water distribution, hot day visits to socially isolated people, moving care facility patients to air-conditioned rooms, and monitoring workers in warm environments have been effective in lowering the number of heat related deaths on extremely hot days. Extreme heat in BC could be a killer but working together can help.
For more information about what cities and health professionals can do to combat extreme heat, visit us at the BC Centre for Disease Control or our partners at the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (NCCEH).