Heat may kill way more Americans yearly than we knew

Most of the deaths covered in the study were from moderately hot weather, rather than extremely hot weather, the researchers report. (Credit: Peter Thoeny/Flickr)

Heat may kill more people in the US than previously reported, according to a new study.

Death records point to hundreds of US deaths from heat each year, but even moderately hot weather may actually be killing thousands, the researchers report.

“Heat is very much a threat to the health of our communities and our families today.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously estimated 600 deaths may be attributable to heat each year.

The study in Environmental Epidemiology estimates that heat contributed to the deaths of 5,600 people each year on average between 1997 and 2006 in 297 counties comprising three-fifths of the US population.

Most of these deaths were from only moderately hot weather, rather than extremely hot weather—categories that the researchers defined not by temperature, but by what temperatures are normal for a given region of the US.

“How dangerous a hot day is may depend on where you live,” says lead author Kate R. Weinberger, assistant professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.

“A 90°F day might be dangerous in Seattle, but not in Phoenix,” she says. “One of the factors that gives rise to this phenomenon is differing degrees of adaptation to heat. For example, air conditioning is much more common in cities like Phoenix that experience hot weather frequently versus cities like Seattle with cooler climates,” Weinberger says. She notes that demographic factors can also affect how vulnerable a population is to heat—heat especially endangers older adults, children, pregnant women, and outdoor workers.

The researchers also point out that COVID-19 will make it harder to stay cool this summer.

The researchers used data from the National Center for Health Statistics on deaths in the most populous counties (1997 to 2006 was the most recent decade with continuous data available), and the Parameter-elevation Relationships on Independent Slopes Model (PRISM), which estimates temperatures across the contiguous US down to the four-square-kilometer area.

While most previous research has focused on the information provided on death records to try to estimate deaths from heat, this study analyzed the association between days considered moderately or extremely hot in that county and the number of deaths from any cause, showing that not hundreds but thousands of deaths are tied to heat. The researchers estimated that moderate heat killed 3,309 people per year in the counties included in the study, and extreme heat killed 2,299 people each year.

“These estimates do not depend on anyone recognizing that a given death was due to excess heat, so they are likely closer to the true number than previous estimates,” says senior author Gregory Wellenius, director of the Climate and Health program at the Boston University School of Public Health.

“Heat is very much a threat to the health of our communities and our families today,” he says. “Public health officials have a responsibility to implement heat action plans—as many communities across the world already have—in order to warn residents ahead of days of extreme heat and to help residents cope with the heat and minimize their health risks.”

However, the researchers point out that COVID-19 will make it harder to stay cool this summer. “Providing publicly accessible air conditioned spaces on hot days now carries additional risks and requires new protocols for keeping people safe from both heat and infection,” Wellenius says.

“At the same time, with many offices, malls, stores, restaurants, and other commercial buildings still largely closed, this summer people are even more reliant on home air conditioning than ever before,” he says.

“Given the high unemployment rates, particularly among vulnerable communities, we may see an even bigger impact of heat on people’s health this summer.”

Source: Boston University