Record-breaking heat brings health risks, experts warn — so here’s how to protect yourself

As extreme heat warnings remain in place over much of Western Canada and the unprecedented weather moves east, experts warn many Canadians’ health could be at risk from the spike in temperatures. 

Speaking to The National, Vancouver emergency room physician Dr. Daniel Kalla said he’s recently seen more patients coming in with heat-related symptoms “more than ever before” in his career.

Some were suffering from heat exhaustion and coping with symptoms like light-headedness, while others, he said, were seriously ill with heat stroke.

“People who are older, people who are on certain medications, substance users — are really at high risk,” Kalla said. “Their themo-regulatory systems just don’t work as well.”

So far the so-called “heat dome” has shattered more than 100 heat records across B.C., Alberta, Yukon and the N.W.T., with the B.C. village of Lytton registering the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada on Monday at 47.9 C.

On Tuesday, Vancouver police said they have been called to 65 sudden deaths and counting since the heat wave began, “with more casualties being reported by the hour,” while B.C. paramedics attended at least 187 ambulance calls over the weekend tied to heat exhaustion and another 52 related to heat stroke.

WATCH | Dr. Daniel Kalla discusses heat-related cases a Vancouver emergency room:

Vancouver emergency room physician Dr. Daniel Kalla on the precautions, warning signs and potential remedies for heat-related illnesses as temperatures reach record highs, and how to cool down. 2:26

The heat dome’s health impacts won’t be known for a few weeks, when the data can be assessed, said Sarah Henderson,  scientific director for Environmental Health Services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

“We definitely expect that there will be significant increased mortality associated with this heat,” she said, calling it “dangerously hot weather.”

Elderly, chronically ill at higher risk

Other medical experts agree certain segments of the population are most at risk of severe health outcomes from this kind of extreme heat.

“The elderly are the most at risk, and people with chronic disease, and usually there’s overlap,” said Dr. Scott Lear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

Those chronic conditions can include heart disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes. 

People who are obese or overexerting themselves in the heat — whether that’s through exercise, or an outdoor job like road construction — are also more at risk.

A construction worker uses a misting fan to cool down at a work site in Vancouver on Monday. People working outside are at risk of overexertion during the heat wave. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“No one feels comfortable in this heat,” Kalla said.

And if you or a loved one start vomiting, stop urinating, feel light-headed or faint, or experience symptoms such as confusion, seizures, or muscle contractions, it’s time to go to a hospital, he said.

Preventing heat-related health issues

To prevent those kinds of health issues, staying cool is imperative, and there are a number of strategies for doing so. 

Medical experts recommend seeking shade instead of being in direct sunlight. If you are outside, be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen, and lightweight clothing to cover your skin. 

Lear advised that people should stay hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day. 

Windows are pictured open at an apartment building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood on Monday. Some health experts are suggesting the heat wave illustrates the importance of making air conditioning units available. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

He also acknowledged that sleeping is particularly difficult for people right now since most homes throughout the Pacific Northwest do not have air conditioning units, and the heat is not subsiding in the evenings.

“You might be dehydrated, actually, even waking up in the morning,” said Lear. 

Anyone wanting to exercise should do so in the early morning when it is still cool or in air conditioned indoor spaces, he advised. People could also consider skipping their workouts given the extreme heat. 

WATCH | What’s behind the record-setting heat wave in the West:

David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada, says the high-pressure heat dome over parts of Western Canada creates an effect that’s like ‘putting a lid on boiling water.’ 3:52

“Your exercise regime shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of your health,” Lear said.

Medical experts also recommend checking in on friends and loved ones who live alone, especially those who are considered vulnerable such as the elderly.

Calls for more cooling spaces

From a policy standpoint, Ian Mauro, executive director of the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg, said government officials should be paying attention to the social vulnerabilities that arise during heat waves.

“Extreme heat doesn’t affect everybody the same way,” he said. “If you’ve got air conditioning, and you’re in a place where you’re safe … then you’re in a much better situation than someone in a high-rise without air conditioning.”

Urban areas need to focus on creating spaces for people to stay cool, Mauro said, including investing in the development of more shaded green spaces and having better access to facilities such as splash pads.

Children cool off at Prince Edward Park in Vancouver, B.C., on June 26. Facilities such as splash pads are playing an essential role in cooling people off. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Likewise, Henderson emphasized that this heat wave will not be the last one that impacts this region, prompting the need for long-term conversations about managing future extreme heat events.

“We definitely need more research into how to cool the indoor environment under these types of extreme conditions without mechanical intervention where that’s possible,” she said.

Henderson questioned whether cities should consider policies to help people add air conditioning or reverse heat pumps within their homes. 

“The alarm bells should be going off in Canada right now,” Mauro said.

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