Nobody Knows How Many People the Pacific Northwest Heat Has Killed

The Oregon Convention Center cooling station is in Portland.Photo by Kathryn Elsesser ( Getty Images)Many people have been quietly killed by the record-breaking heat wave which swept across the Pacific Northwest this week. However, not everyone is equally affected. Heat-related diseases have claimed the lives of a large number of elderly, poor and single people.AdvertisementThis week, temperatures in Canada broke national records. The temperature in Lytton, a small village, reached 121.2°F (49.6°C) on Tuesday. This was above the record for the hottest temperatures in Las Vegas. However, air conditioning is not common in the area, which has led to an increasing public health crisis that we are only beginning to address.In British Columbia, at least 486 people have died in the heat since Friday. This is almost 200% more deaths than what would have happened in the same time period in an average year. The chief coroner stated that the number will rise as new data becomes available.According to Vancouver sergeant Steve Addison, the majority of these cases were related to heat. It is the most horrible thing we have ever seen, and it breaks my heart.The state medical examiners office in Oregon has recorded 63 heat-related deaths. Officials in Portland recorded 97 visits at the urgent care and emergency rooms for heat illness. This is almost the same amount of cases that they see throughout the summer. Washington also reported that over 1,300 people were admitted to emergency rooms due to heat exhaustion or dehydration. According to the state health department, at least three people died from heat exhaustion. This number could rise.Anyone can be exposed to triple-digit temperatures for long periods of time. This is especially true if the heat continues at night. Residents are more susceptible to heat stroke, heat stress, and other conditions. Although no one is able to withstand such temperatures for too long, heat waves can pose a risk to everyone. The elderly are most at risk; Vancouver Police reported Wednesday that 70% of victims found were aged 70 and older.It is well-known that seniors are more susceptible to hypothermia. This umbrella term refers to heat-related illnesses such as heatstroke, heat edema (which causes fluid in the legs to build up), heat syncope (which can cause sudden dizziness following exertion at high temperatures) and heat exhaustion. The biological aspect of heat-related deaths in older people is part of the problem. As we age, our ability and ability to sweat lessens.AdvertisementSenior citizens are more likely to suffer from underlying conditions that can become worsened by heat waves, such as cardiac or respiratory disease. In Oregon's Multnomah County which covers most of Portland, the medical examiner stated that most people who died were suffering from underlying conditions.However, age is only one factor that can determine someone's vulnerability to extreme heat. People's survival ability can be affected by their economic and cultural environment. People who have people to monitor their well-being tend to do better. Social isolation was a key indicator of mortality in the 1995 Chicago heat wave. This dynamic may have also played out under the West's heat dome this week. Multnomah County's medical examiner stated that many of the people who died were found unassisted.AdvertisementWhen temperatures become life-threatening, having access to resources and money can help save lives. Many people don't have air conditioners, which is likely why this week's heat wave in N orthwest was so severe. Even in areas with more cooling technology, heat can still be deadly if people don't have the means to afford it.People of color and the poorest are more likely to live near areas with the greatest heat island effect due to a lack of trees or unbroken asphalt. These paved surfaces can emit heat and make nearby areas up to 2-8 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1-4.4 degrees Celsius) warmer than the rest of their surroundings. Oregon outreach workers reported that two people died in Bend from heatstroke over the weekend. They were killed in a camp for homeless people that didn't have shade.AdvertisementThese conditions will only get worse as the climate crisis will push temperatures higher. Cities that fail to find ways to keep people cool could be in for a disaster. A 2020 study showed that extreme heat deaths will outnumber all other infectious diseases by 2100.Michael Gerrard, a Columbia legal scholar, outlined the legal tools municipalities can use to protect residents from heatstroke in a 2019 paper. They include requiring frequent inspections at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in heat waves, and using low-income energy assistance programs for funding the purchase and running of air conditioners when it gets too hot.