Extreme heat kills and smog kills.
Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health has reported that, in an average year, 120 Torontonians die prematurely from heat, and another 822 die prematurely from smog (based on survey of annual death statistics from 1954 to 2000).
Low-income people, the elderly, children and those with poor health are at particular risk. The year 2005 was a record-breaking year for extreme heat and smog ” more than double the previous annual number of dirty air days.
On February 27, 2006, the Toronto Board of Health took some important steps in the short, medium and long-term to deal with killer heat and killer smog. Soon after a presentation I gave the Board directed the Medical Officer of Health to take action.
The Board was considering a major report from Dr. David McKeown, the Medical Officer of Health, on urban heat and smog issues. The report was prompted by another presentation from I made last year.
In the short-term, Toronto will improve its community response plan for extreme heat. Emergency cooling centres will open throughout the city, and there will be water, food, cots and transportation. A new advisory committee, including community partners, will be set up to monitor the plan.
The current registry of people who are at-risk during heat waves is maintained by public health officials and community agencies. Health officials check on those who are listed in the registry during heat episodes. At the urging of Wellesley Central, the Board of Health has requested the Medical Officer of Health report on expanding the registry to include people referred by family, friends or neighbours” similar to the comprehensive registry in Chicago.
In the medium term, the Board of Health is backing the plan for a maximum temperature standard for Toronto housing. Currently, building owners are required to maintain a minimum temperature during the winter for residential buildings, and there are also fire safety and other standards. A maximum temperature standard would require landlords to make sure that there is adequate air circulation or cooling systems to prevent internal temperatures from reaching lethal levels. Last summer, a rooming house tenant was found dead in a building where, according to reports, the temperature was in the mid-40s.
I have been recommending Toronto adopt a maximum temperature standard for almost a year. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David McKeown, has recently proposed a limit of 32C. Further work will be required with other city departments to implement this standard.
If it is adopted, Toronto will be the first municipality in North America to protect the health and lives of its residents with a maximum temperature standard.
In the long-term, the Board of Health has accepted the Wellesley Central recommendation that public health officials need to be more involved in city-wide environmental initiatives to deal with the urban heat island effect. There are a range of policy responses, from a cool roof program to urban tree planting.