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Here’s why an Arizona medical examiner is working to track heat-related deaths

Published on June 11, 2024

Traffic on the 101 Freeway backs up during a 2015 heat wave.
Traffic on the 101 Freeway backs up during a 2015 heat wave. Image Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Written by Alejandra Borunda for NPR News

Greg Hess deals with death day in, day out.

Hess is the medical examiner for Pima County, Ariz., a region along the United States-Mexico border. His office handles some 3,000 deaths each year — quiet deaths, overdoses, gruesome deaths, tragic ones.

From April through October every year, Hess is confronted with an increasingly obvious and dramatic problem: His morgue drawers fill with people who died sooner than they should have because of Arizona’s suffocating heat.

Pima is hot, but it’s not the hottest county in the country. Nor the biggest; the most humid; or the most populated. But Hess and his team are at the country’s forefront in one key way: They have developed some of the most innovative strategies to accurately count the number of people dying from heat-related problems. Those efforts could redefine how the United States understands the growing cost of climate change, because right now, the human toll of climate-worsened disasters is dramatically undercounted.

A small group of health experts across the country has concluded over time that thousands of Americans die every year because of climate-fueled disasters, like stronger, more dangerous hurricanes or heat waves so intense they obliterate historical records. And no one is keeping official track of the scope of the problem — not government agencies, researchers or state officials.

Those omissions aren’t just painful for the loved ones of the dead, says Kristie Ebi, a public health and climate epidemiologist at the University of Washington. They have concrete consequences: Without an accurate count of the human toll of weather disasters, it is hard — or sometimes impossible — to understand their full impact on families and communities. By extension, Ebi says, an incomplete count impairs the ability to plan for and prevent such losses in the future, like knowing when and where to locate cooling centers during a heat wave.

“If you don’t know how many people suffer and die in disasters, then you can’t set priorities appropriately,” she says.

But now a small contingent is trying to count better — a critical goal as climate change pushes heat to nearly unlivable temperatures, makes hurricanes deadlier and chokes communities with wildfire smoke. The ranks are diverse, from those on the front lines of death, like Hess, to epidemiologists and public health experts. And their goal is to provide insights based on their data so that policymakers, city leaders and advocates have the information needed to save lives.

Continue reading at NPR News.

Without an accurate count of the human toll of weather disasters like heat waves, it is hard  to understand their full impact on families and communities.
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