When the Washington State Department of Health announced this week that the recent heat wave in the northwest had killed 117 people, many people overlooked an important word in the announcement.
The death tolls released by state and county officials are early estimates based on records that officials acknowledge that heat-related deaths tend to be undercounted. Since it can be difficult to determine the role of extreme heat in mortality, an official number of deaths can be elusive and it can take months or more to develop.
“I have no doubt these numbers will increase over time,” said Jaime Madrigano, a researcher with Rand Corp., yesterday. “It’s telling that we’re already seeing the big numbers.”
The death toll reported to date is based only on deaths that are directly attributable to heat and where the cause is typically cited as hyperthermia.
“It often takes more time to identify heat deaths that can be identified indirectly,” said Madrigano. “When the National Weather Service estimates heat deaths, their totals are based on deaths directly related to heat and from death certificates that state the cause of the heat exposure.”
Current estimates may overlook deaths where heat was a contributing factor to the immediate cause of death, which may be listed as cardiovascular disease or respiratory disease. It is known that heat makes both conditions worse.
“Heat is sometimes referred to as a silent killer. Unlike other natural disasters like hurricanes, there is no obvious damage, ”said Madrigano.
When Multnomah County, Oregon District Court released a report of deaths from a three-day heat wave in late June two weeks ago, the report said that 54 deaths had been “formally declared to be due to hyperthermia.” However, the report cautioned that “results may change” as test results reveal different causes for the 54 deaths and additional heat-related deaths are discovered.
The Portland, Oregon area heat wave lasted from June 25 to June 28, but 51 of the 54 deaths occurred on or after June 29. The report said a lack of air conditioning was “a major contributor to mortality”. None of the deceased had a central home cooling system, and only eight had portable air conditioning.
The Washington Department of Health said in its latest report, “We are not reporting any likely heat-related deaths” and said that “more” [heat-related] Deaths are still being reported. “
Calculating a massive death toll from this summer’s heat waves requires the kind of analysis health experts have done after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. The Puerto Rico government initially reported that the hurricane had killed 64 people.
But the number was so small that university health researchers conducted their own analyzes comparing the total number of deaths in Puerto Rico in the months following Hurricane Maria to the average number of deaths in the same period in previous years. These “excess death” studies have estimated Mary’s death toll at 1,100 to 4,600. The official number according to NOAA is 2,981.
“It is important for researchers to look at statistics and use the long-term average death toll to estimate excess deaths or excessive hospital stays,” Madrigano said.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News brings important news for energy and environmental professionals.