Blog: Tracking of Heat-Related Deaths

Blog post by Conrad Oliver, CELA Student

In the middle of January, while Ontarians dig themselves out of our most recent winter storm, it may seem absurd to be sounding the alarm about the dangers of extreme heat. But, as the days grow longer and the province begins to thaw, the summertime heat will soon be upon us again, confronting us with the question: is Ontario ready?

As Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, CELA, and Low-Income Energy Network identified in a letter to Officer of the Chief Coroner for Ontario, it is low-income and vulnerable populations which are disproportionately affected by extreme heat.

We strongly encourage the Office of the Chief Coroner to improve its tracking of heat-related deaths in the province during extreme heat events.

Last summer, Canadians across the country experienced record-breaking heatwaves and extreme heat events, most notably during the extreme heat dome in Western Canada, which caused an estimated 800 heat-related deaths [1]. Unfortunately, the harsh reality of a worsening climate crisis means we’re rapidly entering uncharted territory, which will inevitably see an increase in these extreme heat events in the coming years. In Ontario, extreme heat events are expected to increase not only in severity but in frequency, with modelling suggesting Ontario will see the greatest number of potentially deadly hot days nationwide by the 2080s [2]. This trend represents an acute danger to people across Ontario, in part because we’re facing this crisis almost entirely data-blind.

Currently, Ontario dramatically under-reports the true number of heat-related deaths. The Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario narrowly defines heat-related deaths as those where accidental deaths are directly and immediately associated with heat, such as heat stroke [3]. Unlike many provinces such as Quebec and British Columbia, this characterization ignores deaths where heat exacerbates pre-existing chronic health conditions resulting in premature death.

Unsurprisingly, Ontario’s data-blind approach has deadly ramifications for vulnerable populations, including the elderly in long-term care homes, children, people with chronic health conditions, and people without housing or those without adequate means to cool themselves during heat waves. Without accurate data and heat-related death tracking in Ontario, building resiliency or preparing for this uncomfortably hot future is impossible. Understanding and identifying who is suffering, even dying from extreme heat, their circumstances, and their demographics are critical first steps to deploying public resources and drafting effective policy to save lives.

For too long, the issue of heat-related death tracking and extreme heat has been ignored in Ontario until we’re in the midst of another extreme heat event. We must begin building support for resilient and equitable climate action before the summertime heat. Provincially, Ontario should look to other jurisdictions such as Quebec and British Columbia to reclassify deaths as heat-related when extreme heat exacerbates pre-existing health conditions or contributes to excess deaths. Municipally, cities should prepare resiliency plans for a rapidly warming climate, including following the examples of cities across the world such as Athens, Freetown, and Miami by appointing a Chief Heat Officer and exploring new ways to cool cities such as maximum heat by-laws for residential units [4].