‘Extreme heat can be fatal’: British Columbia coroner investigates 3 recent heat deaths

As the province continues to see more heat records broken, the BC Coroner’s Service is investigating three deaths suspected of being caused by hyperthermia this year, CTV News has learned.

While temperatures have not been as extreme as in 2021, when 619 people died during a record-breaking prolonged heat dome, coroners in the province are still investigating the deaths of 16 people believed to also be linked to extreme heat last year.

“Extreme heat can be fatal,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner for the province of British Columbia. “We don’t have aggregate data analyzed for the most recent deaths, but certainly there was overwhelming evidence from the 2021 death review panel that older people, people with underlying health conditions, certainly that environment where there’s no air conditioning…has the potential to cause some pretty serious impacts.”

When asked by CTV News if healthcare providers were more aware of the risks given the horrifying number of heat dome deaths of 2021 and therefore more likely to report suspected heat-related deaths than they were in the past, LaPointe agreed that’s possible and has had implications for his staff as well.

“It certainly has made us as medical examiners much more thoughtful about investigating any deaths in extreme temperatures,” he said. “People aren’t necessarily aware of how hot it’s getting, and as confusion and fatigue start to set in, people are less aware, less able to help themselves.”


THE HEALTH AUTHORITIES CONFRONT THE OWNERS

It is within this context that the province’s two largest health authorities released a bulletin late last week urging landlords and strata to remove statutes or policies against air conditioning or other cooling devices, as the province experiences increasingly hot summers with dangerously high temperatures.

Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health also sent their guidance to homeowner associations and strata to “make life-saving decisions” that override considerations of aesthetics or building envelope.

“We want people to consider how they can make space for these life-saving interventions,” said Dr. Emily Newhouse, Fraser Health Medical Health Officer, who advised thinking of heat as another indoor health threat. “For example, with carbon monoxide it’s obviously not safe to be out there when it’s present and really high indoor temperatures can be just as life-threatening for people who are at high risk.”

He added that modern portable air-conditioning units are energy-efficient options that are unlikely to overwhelm existing electrical infrastructure, while allowing just one room in each home to provide shelter, particularly for those unable to access activated cooling centers during heat waves.

Both Newhouse and LaPointe believe climate change will continue to affect and exacerbate these problems, a message echoed by the prime minister last month on the anniversary of the arrival of the 2021 heat dome in the province.


MANY POLICIES HAVE CHANGED SINCE CATASTROPHIC HEAT DOME

Educating the public about the risks of extreme heat in the Lower Mainland, where residents have traditionally enjoyed or lamented cool, humid weather, has been a challenge for public health officials, who failed to communicate the risks of the heat dome to their own medical colleagues or emergency planners in 2021, and drastically underestimated the potential impacts of the unusual heat event.

Last month, a government-commissioned analysis by the Canadian Climate Instituteconcluded that improved planning and messaging, a modest free air conditioning program for high-risk British Columbians, and implementation of the Heat Alert Response System had been positive learnings from the tragedy, but also made a number of recommendations.

The authors of “The Case for Adapting to Extreme Heat” wrote that mechanical cooling could save hundreds of lives while reducing health care costs and should be widely deployed, emphasizing that there needs to be greater integration and coordination of response and government agencies, among other suggestions. It also confirms that BC Emergency Health Services did not ramp up their response with additional personnel and logistical support until after most of the deaths had already occurred and temperatures had begun to drop.

The report revealed that in some cases, hospital staff had to purchase fans and ice after some emergency departments exceeded 90-degree indoor temperatures; 38 degrees in the case of the Lion’s Gate intensive care floor, while CT and MRI scanners at four hospitals were not working due to indoor temperatures, affecting the diagnosis and treatment of strokes, injuries and other serious health problems.

In Grand Forks, the Hardy View Lodge long-term care home was so hot that the sprinkler system went off. At Fraser Health they brought in temporary refrigerators as an “overflow morgue” at Surrey Memorial Hospital and surgeries were delayed at Burnaby and Langley Memorial hospitals due to the shocks of extreme heat.


Leave a Comment