The number of deaths linked to the current heat wave in Quebec stood at 33 on Thursday, according to public health officials, with 18 of those concentrated in Montreal and its suburbs.
Meanwhile, in Ontario, where the heat has been just as oppressive and relentless over the last five days, the official tally still sits at zero.
That may lead to the conclusion that Quebecers are somehow more vulnerable to extreme temperatures, but experts and publicly available statistics suggest that it’s more complicated than that.
First — and perhaps most importantly — Quebec is somewhat different in how it records heat-related deaths. The province’s extreme heat plan allows health officials to work in tandem with first responders and emergency rooms to quickly track down potential cases of heat-related illnesses and deaths, according to officials.
ABOVE: Dr. Richard Rusk explains the symptoms of heat exhaustion, and who is most at risk.
In Ontario, it takes much longer to associate a death directly with the heat.
“A thorough death investigation conducted by our office takes time to complete and we endeavour to provide confirmed information as opposed to speculative information,” said Cheryl Mahyr, a spokesperson for the coroner’s office in Ontario.
“At this time, we are unable to confirm any deaths recently reported to our office for investigation are due to the current heat wave.”
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any, however.
Not even the number of emergency department visits tied to the current heat wave is available yet in Ontario. That data won’t be released until August, said a spokesperson for the health ministry.
The high concentration of deaths in Montreal, in particular, may also be tied to access to air conditioning, especially in private homes.
As the heat wave stretches on, the elderly, the very young, those with chronic health issues and those dealing with drug or alcohol addiction have a much harder time keeping their body temperatures down. The longer the heat wave, the more dangerous it becomes.
Air conditioning units can mean the difference between life and death for these vulnerable populations, said Dr. David Kaiser of Montreal’s public health department, and not a single one of the people who died in Montreal this week (as of Wednesday) had an AC unit in their home. In some of their apartments, temperatures had spiked to over 40 C.
“At 46 C you’re not going to last long,” Kaiser said.
Kaiser estimated that about 60 per cent of his city’s households have AC, whether it be a window unit or central air.
“But that varies from around 40 per cent in certain neighbourhoods in the central part of the city, to 80 or 90 per cent in certain suburban neighbourhoods,” he said, adding that unfortunately, Montreal’s most vulnerable people tend to live in the hottest downtown zones with the least access to air conditioning.
In Toronto, things look a bit different.
A survey conducted in 2010 by the city’s public health department revealed that overall, 85 per of Toronto residents had access to air conditioning in their home. Again, that statistic differed between districts and the most vulnerable people tended to have less access to cooling systems, but even the neighbourhood with the least number of air conditioned households (Parkdale/Bloor West) had far more AC-cooled households (77 per cent) than Montreal.
On a provincewide level, the most recently available data reflects this same disparity. It suggests that just 42 per cent of Quebec’s households have an air conditioning system, compared to 74 per cent of Ontario’s.
Signs of heat stroke and what to do
Early signs of heat stroke include fatigue, difficulty concentrating and dizziness. Here are a few ways to avoid getting ill:
- Drink plenty of water, even before you feel thirsty
- Limit alcohol intake
- Stay in the shade when possible
- Cut back on activities that require effort
- Wear a hat and sunscreen
- Wear lightweight clothing, preferably cotton, to allow sweat evaporation
- Elderly people should avoid going out, especially if they are on medication
If you think you are suffering from heat-related illness:
- Seek shelter or a cool place, rest and drink water
- If possible, use a fan to create air movement
- Use blinds or shades to filter direct sunlight
— With files from Rachel Lau, Mike Armstrong and the Canadian Press