Over a 25-day period, nearly a quarter of all deaths in the province – 595 people – were due to the heat wave in late June. Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby recorded the most deaths, according to the BC Coroners Service.
Four months after the deadliest weather event in modern Canadian history, BC Coroners Service sheds new light on where and how humans died due to extreme heat.
Updated preliminary data indicate that at least 595 people died when temperatures rose across the province in late June, beating a Canadian record all the way back to 50 C in the village of Lytton. When the heat deaths peaked on June 29, 231 people died over a single 24-hour period.
Zooming in over 25 days, the heat wave accounted for nearly a quarter of all deaths in the province.
BC forensic pathologist Lisa Lapointe said in a written statement that the service will continue to gather information to help prevent a recurrence in the future.
“I express my sincere condolences to all those who lost a loved one as a result of last summer’s unprecedented heat dome,” she said.
“By identifying patterns and factors in the tragic deaths that occurred unexpectedly last summer, our province will be in a better position to prevent future similar tragedies.”
In September, BC Center for Disease Control’s scientific director Dr. Sarah Henderson that several people died under the heat dome in low-income areas where people lived alone and with little green space.
A Glacier Media study also reported unpublished emergency room data showing that working-class neighborhoods in southern Vancouver experienced twice as many heat-related hospitalizations compared to the more affluent neighborhoods of Point Gray, Dunbar and Shaughnessy.
In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Canada’s poorest neighborhood, hospital admissions tripled, and more people were admitted to emergency rooms due to heat than anywhere else in the city.
BC Coroners Service recorded the most deaths due to heat in Vancouver (99), followed by Surrey (67), Burnaby (63) and New Westminster (28).
Per capita, the Fraser North region of Metro Vancouver was hardest hit, which includes the municipalities of Burnaby, New Westminster and Tri-Cities.
Nearly all deaths (96 percent) occurred in people’s homes, which include shelters, single-room hotels, room houses, nursing homes and long-term care homes, and hotels.
Workers who work long hours in hot conditions usually face greater risks when heat waves strike. But so do the physically handicapped or those with mental health problems – anyone who has trouble helping themselves.
Existing health conditions, drug and alcohol use and obesity also make people more vulnerable, says Dr. Tom Kosatsky, Medical Director of Environmental Health at the BC Center for Disease Control.
One of the biggest factors that determines how vulnerable a person is to heat? Age. BC’s experience was no different: more than two-thirds of heat deaths (69 percent) at the end of June were in people aged 70 or older.
A silent killer, dead due to heat is notoriously difficult to determine. This is because extreme heat can often turn pre-existing medical conditions into crises, leading forensic pathologists to questions such as: Are we blaming the heart attack or the heat that triggered it?
According to the forensic pathologist, a heat-related death is declared when the temperature of a body or the environment in which it is found corresponds to hyperthermia. When there is no direct temperature recording, coroners look at the individual’s medical history, clues, or other signs found near the body that may indicate heat death.
These definitions matter when making a response to future extreme heat events that are expected to hit warmer and more frequently as climate change distorts what we think of as normal summer temperatures.
In the weeks following the heat wave, a team of leading international climate scientists concluded that the heat wave had been made 150 times more likely due to climate change. In the 2040s, they say, such punitive heat could return every five to ten years.
“While we expect the results of the obituary to make a significant contribution to efforts to increase public safety, we must take steps to prepare for future extreme weather events now,” Lapointe said.
“The effects of climate change are both real and unpredictable. Having a plan to check in regularly with relatives living alone, be aware of cooler and air-conditioned areas in your neighborhood and heed early warnings of extreme weather are simple steps that will help ensure that we are all properly prepared and safe. “
The BC Coroner Service said it expects to complete an investigation into each of the 595 deaths early next year. These results will inform a “death assessment panel” composed of experts in the field, who will come together to make recommendations on how to avoid such a high death rate next time. These results will be published in late spring 2022.