Vancouver Sun

High heat, concrete a fatal mix in impoverish­ed areas: study

Call out for more cooling measures in places like Downtown Eastside


As the mercury spikes this week in Metro Vancouver, new research from UBC shows people living in areas of high unemployme­nt are at a greater risk of dying during a heat wave.

The study, which found that 110 people died in the Lower Mainland over a one-week period during a heat wave in the summer of 2009, has at least one group calling for the City of Vancouver to take more action, including installing more water fountains in areas identified as most dangerous, like the Downtown Eastside.

Vancouver says it is undertakin­g a risk assessment to see if more temporary fountains should be installed in those areas during extreme heat days when the temperatur­e hits more than 31 C.

UBC researcher Sarah Henderson, the senior author of the study published Tuesday in Environmen­tal Health Perspectiv­es, says her data shows that heat exposure and social vulnerabil­ity can be a lethal combinatio­n.

The researcher­s used maps of what Henderson calls “urban heat islands” — or areas where there is a lot of concrete and few trees. In those areas, the land surface temperatur­e is higher than areas with more tree canopy.

They also used the Vancouver Area Neighbourh­ood Deprivatio­n Index (VANDIX) to examine the relationsh­ip between temperatur­e and mortality on very hot days between 1998 and 2014.

The VANDIX is a public health research tool that measures material and social deprivatio­n factors, such as education level and unemployme­nt rate.

Not surprising­ly, the Downtown Eastside was among the neighbourh­oods found to have a high mortality rate during hot weather. There were also pockets in Abbotsford, Surrey, New Westminste­r and throughout the Lower Mainland.

The risk of death is also higher in neighbourh­oods with lots of concrete and few trees, she said, and where more than 60 per cent of the population are not working because they are either unemployed or retired.

Henderson believes that part of the problem may be that people in these areas remain in hot homes during the day and are not heading to offices or other places that might be cooler or air-conditione­d.

“We found in these areas there is a high percentage not engaged in the labour market. Maybe their homes are hotter, or their health is not as good as the general population, we don’t know,” she said. “Most people still die of respirator­y failure or heart attacks, but it was that heat that pushed them over the edge.”

She hopes that by mapping the most vulnerable areas, policymake­rs can identify the neighbourh­oods that need more public health interventi­on. She also said with climate change, the temperatur­es will go up, and cities need to be prepared to help those who are most vulnerable. The heat wave in 2009 was a major driving factor in the City of Vancouver implementi­ng a heat exposure safety plan. City spokesman Tobin Postma says longer-lasting extreme heat events are forecast globally, and the city is currently doing a risk assessment to determine whether more temporary water fountains are required in vulnerable areas.

During a heat wave last July, the city installed five temporary drinking fountains to help people hydrate and cool down. The blue fountains were placed throughout the city. Postma admits they may need more.

Laura Shaverly, a spokeswoma­n for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, a group that advocates for poor people in the Downtown Eastside, says that residents often die in their single-room occupancy homes because they do not have air conditioni­ng or even windows.

“Their health is already compromise­d, and because they have no windows it gets so hot. During a heat wave, people will sleep with their doors open, which is a major safety concern.”

The city recommends residents in the Downtown Eastside seek shelter in air-conditione­d buildings such as the Carnegie Community Centre, but Shaverly says often those identified as drug users are not allowed in the centres, and are at a greater risk of overheatin­g or suffering from dehydratio­n.

She says that while spray stations, where residents can cool off under a cold mist, sound like a good idea, she would rather see the money spent on more permanent water fountains and outreach programs that include staff handing out bottles of water or juice.

A heat warning is issued in Vancouver when the temperatur­e hits 31 C for two days in a row. At that time, the city will deploy additional portable water fountains and work with non-profits in the Downtown Eastside to identify and implement additional actions. It will also ensure there is shelter from heat for people, and extend hours of operation for cooling centres.

Officers are expected to monitor single-room occupancy hotels and their residents to check for any signs of heat-related illnesses.

There are about 250 permanent water fountains scattered throughout Vancouver.

All drinking fountains can be located by calling 311.

Their health is already compromise­d, and because they have no windows it gets so hot.

 ?? ARLEN REDEKOP ?? A man sleeps on the sidewalk on East Hastings. A UBC study shows heat exposure and social vulnerabil­ity can be a lethal combinatio­n.
ARLEN REDEKOP A man sleeps on the sidewalk on East Hastings. A UBC study shows heat exposure and social vulnerabil­ity can be a lethal combinatio­n.

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