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The victims of last summer’s heat dome were mostly poor, isolated, elderly, female: Study


Researchers also found a link between lack of “greenness” around the homes of those who perished during six days of sustained higher than normal temperatures last summer but said more studies are needed to draw that link

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The number of deaths in Metro Vancouver blamed on last summer’s heat dome, when temperatures soared to over 35 degrees for six days, was 440 per cent higher than the usual number of weather deaths in an average summer, according to a study.

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Researchers at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control found the elderly, the poor, the isolated and women made up a disproportionate percentage of those who died between June 27 and July 2.

The findings are “not at all” surprising, said a UBC associate professor of nursing, Jennifer Baumbusch.

“When the heat dome happened, older people, low-income people, would have less access to air conditioning and be less able to get to cooling centres,” she said.

She said advice to get outside during such an extreme weather event “is way outside of many people’s physical ability.”

The B.C. Coroner’s Office determined that 595 deaths were caused by the extreme heat during the six days and the report focused on the 434 community deaths, that is those not living in care facilities, in the Metro Vancouver area.

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The average three-day local temperature for Metro was estimated a 36.3 C, ranging between 24.4 C and 41.6 C, compared with 25 C mean temperature in other years the study said.

It found on average, 171 deaths each year from about mid-June to mid-July between 2013 and 2020 were “typical weather deaths.”

The researchers, led by Sarah Henderson, looked at victims’ income, age, sex and neighbourhood greenness to assess risk. Henderson was not available for an interview.

The study found women made up 54.6 per cent of heat dome deaths and 43.3 per cent of typical weather deaths in past years, while men made up 45.4 per cent of heat dome deaths and 56.7 per cent of typical weather deaths.

“Females were affected more because older females tend to be more likely to live alone,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at UBC’s school of population and public health.

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Jennifer Baumbusch, UBC associate professor of nursing, said advice to get outside during extreme heat “is way outside of many people’s physical ability.”
Jennifer Baumbusch, UBC associate professor of nursing, said advice to get outside during extreme heat “is way outside of many people’s physical ability.” Vancouver Sun

The study found those “materially and socially deprived” made up 28.1 per cent of the heat dome deaths, double that of typical weather deaths in other years, and 6.2 per cent of the heat dome deaths were in the “materially and socially privileged” groups, about half the proportion of typical weather deaths.

And researchers said while more research is necessary, the study indicates that the number of deaths was highest in areas where residences had little “greenness” within 100 metres of their buildings and weren’t close to major roads and large bodies of water.

They said proximity to “urban heat islands” with little trees or parkland were “associated with increased risks.”

“That’s kind of interesting because it is another kind of thing you can do in the future to reduce the risk (for vulnerable residents),” said Brauer, meaning planting more trees, not cutting down as many trees and incorporating vegetation in design of neighbourhoods and buildings.

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“Increasing local green space in neighbourhoods with little air conditioning may help to save lives during hot weather,” said the report.

It noted that more studies are needed to draw links between the lack of greenery and number of deaths. And the authors said a more detailed analysis will be needed to determine a correlation between the risks this study found and “further investigations by the coroner will focus on housing conditions, indoor temperatures, presence of air conditioning, social isolation and substance dependency and other known co-morbidities,” which will take months.

The B.C. Coroners Service is continuing to investigate the circumstance of each death and experts on a death review panel are expected to provide recommendations to respond to future extreme weather events.

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The B.C. Liberal Opposition is calling on Premier John Horgan to form an all-party working group to review the province’s response to emergencies, including improving communications, preparing for disasters, devising emergency response protocols, and ensuring the alert ready system is ready for future events, Liberal interim Leader Shirley Bond said in an email.

And it is “vital” that government address the “serious shortage of paramedics” and ambulance delays, she said.


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