Toronto continues to suffer under extreme heat – along with many other places throughout North America. The very high temperatures, combined with humidity, are not merely uncomfortable, but deadly for the health of individual people and the population health of the entire community. Toronto Public Health has useful information on extreme heat, including information on cooling centres throughout the city that provide water and some relief from the extreme heat.
In 2005, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr David McKeown, published research analyzing weather-related premature deaths from 1954 to 2000. The figures show that more Torontonians are dying prematurely from heat (an average of 120 per year) than cold (an average of 105 per year). Dr McKeown reported that smog – which is often mixed in with killer summer heat – is even more deadly, claiming an average of 822 lives annually. As of July 5, the Ontario environment ministry reports that Toronto has suffered nine smog days so far this year, compared to just one smog day in all of last year, eight the previous year and four the year before.
Killer heat and smog, like many other health concerns, has an inequitable impact. Among those most vulnerable are isolated seniors, people with chronic and pre-existing illnesses, infants and young children, people on certain medications and those who are marginally housed or homeless, according to health authorities. Extreme heat and smog impact on a range of health, social and economic concerns. On Thursday, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned that extreme heat in the US risks driving up global food prices.
Taking shelter from the heat and smog is a necessary but short-term response. There are plenty of initiatives that are required at the local, provincial, national and international levels to tackle the underlying issues, cool the extreme heat and help clear the air. The Toronto Atmospheric Fund was created in 1991 to help identify practical solutions. Simple building solutions – like green roofs – can help cool the temperature. Experts have long recognized that the urban heat island effect – which causes temperatures to rise in cities – needs to be tackled, along with climate change adaptation strategies.
As Toronto continues to boil through the over-heated summer of 2012, spare a thought not just for ways to cope with deadly heat and smog, but also for the long-term strategies that local, provincial, national and international governments and other partners can take to bring some cool relief.