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Heat-Related Deaths Have Significant Socioeconomic and Racial Disparities

Jul 15, 2019

Credit Dan Gold / unsplash

It's summer and it gets hot but climate change is driving temperatures higher and making heatwaves more extreme, as we've already seen this summer from Europe to Alaska.

Extreme heat is more than just a nuisance. Heat waves actually kill more Americans than any other type of natural disaster. And those deaths are not evenly distributed.

Yes the elderly are more vulnerable but there are also major disparities in heat-related deaths along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Jaime Madrigano is a researcher at the RAND Corporation and an affiliate faculty member at the party Rand Graduate School. She studies the links between climate and health and has looked at disparities in heat related deaths in New York City neighborhoods.

Madrigano noted that the CDC estimates that about 600 people die from the heat each year in the U.S., but that's actually just accounting for deaths that are strictly classified as due to the heat. There actually are many more that she considers heat associated deaths. 

"On a death certificate you might have a different cause of death that might be due to cardiovascular disease. But we know from a lot of the research that when we look at what is excess mortality during major heat events and heatwaves we actually see that those numbers rise a lot more," said Madrigano.

In fact, in just New York City alone they estimate that they see over 100 cases of excess mortality due to extreme heat each year.

And with temperatures rising due to climate change, we don't know how different populations will adapt to rising temperatures. 

One of the biggest solutions to heat has been air conditioning, which many people use in the U.S., but there are still many areas that lack air conditioning or don't use it because of high utility bills.

And there are other factors at play, too. Neighborhoods that have trees will be able to stay cooler, versus those with mostly blacktop. And simply opening your window and leting a breeze in can be helpful, but some people don't want to open windows because of fear of crime.

Madrigano believes that a holistic approach has to be taken to help people in these situations. 

"I think one of the most important things to start off with is for the community itself to really have a good understanding of who is affected, what is the level of burden in the community, and then to understand who is most at risk."

If health and medical professionals, and city and community planners get involved in finding out those answers, it could save lives.