In British Columbia, air conditioners are a hot commodity like never before on the West Coast. But as more and more people adapt to more frequent heat waves, many others still suffer through summer temperatures with little more than a fan and a wet cloth to keep them cool.
Temperature extremes have experts worried, because as bad as it is when it feels like 35 C outdoors, it’s indoor temperatures that kill people, says Sarah Henderson, a public health expert with the BC Centre for Disease Control.
“People don’t die because it’s too hot outside. They die because it’s too hot inside,” she says.
“The key message is that indoor temperatures matter, and they matter a lot.”
For anyone stuck inside without AC, excessive heat can be deadly.
Restaurant workers who toil in kitchens that can easily reach 35 or 40 C when it’s hot outside; seniors living in homes without cooling systems; and homeless people living in tents are among the groups prone to suffering excess interior heat.
Like many restaurant workers, staff at Chongqing Restaurant in Downtown Vancouver struggle to stay cool when the mercury soars. It can get uncomfortably hot in what’s already a crowded kitchen tucked away in the back of the small, unassuming restaurant along one of the city’s busiest shopping streets.
But manager Kelly Zhou says his kitchen crew of four power through. When temperature and humidity outdoors makes it feel hotter than 30 C – and much hotter in the kitchen – they’ll fire up the ice machine and put buckets of ice around the kitchen to try and cool things down … a bit.
This year, the season’s first heat wave caught the restaurant by surprise. Seemingly overnight, blistering temperatures descended upon the coast, and by the time Zhou went out to buy fans to cool his kitchen down, they were all sold out.
There’s AC in the dining area, and some of its refreshing breeze makes its way over to the kitchen, but not much (and even with AC, you can only cool a kitchen so much). But when it comes to heat, Zhou says the kitchen staff “are used to it.”
Still, exposure to excess temperatures can overwhelm the body very quickly. This includes in the ‘comfort’ of your own home; in BC, most homes still do not have air conditioning.
Hot, stuffy, stagnant air, coupled with very little cool-air relief in the overnight hours for the body to recover, can be an especially dangerous combination, experts say. Those conditions can lead to headaches, confusion, nausea, and fatigue. Under prolonged exposure, excess heat can lead to seizures, organ failure, even brain damage.
As a kinesiology professor at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, Zachary Schlader studies the effects of the heat on the body.
In a heat wave, he says, the heart has to work much harder to pump blood to the surface of the skin. This process is one of the body’s natural defense mechanisms against heat – moving warm blood from the body core to the surface of the skin where heat energy can dissipate in the surrounding air.
“The amount of blood your heart needs to pump out per minute goes way up … from five to 10 or 15 litres per minute,” Schlader says. The transfer of blood to the surface of the skin also means other vital organs, notably the kidneys, aren’t receiving as much blood as they normally would.
Under extreme heat conditions, the kidneys work on overdrive to conserve water and to prevent the body from dehydrating. That, coupled with the loss of blood flow to vital organs, means kidney failure is a persistent danger when the body overheats.
In B.C.’s Fraser Valley, east of Vancouver, summer highs are regularly several degrees hotter than along the coast. If it’s 26 C in Vancouver, it can easily get to 33 C or 34 C in Abbotsford – and that’s without the humidity. That kind of heat is a huge risk for the city’s homeless population, who are living in tents and trailers scattered in encampments throughout the city. Those tents can get impossibly hot.
One of those communities, known as “The Trails,” is below the whizzing traffic of the Trans-Canada Highway. Last year, the people who call this area home were hit by flooding that completely washed out parts of the city. Now, heat is the challenge.
Chris C. is a 51-year-old homeless man who’s been living here for just over a year. He says he lost his job setting up trade shows when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down and is now forced to make the best of what little he has left.
Chris says it can easily hit 35 C inside one of the tents that he’s set up. “I’ve got a couple of USB fans,” he says, but there’s no denying that during a heat wave, it can get unbearably hot. “Even with the windows open, there’s no movement. It gets you up early.”
Of course, there is no AC to speak of.
Despite the challenges – heat, floods, mental illness, drugs and the occasional bout of violence – there is a sense of community here, and people look out for one another.
“We’re houseless, we’re not homeless,” says Chris, who was lucky enough to find a spot next to a little stream. He talks of neighbours, furniture, even landscaping of sorts. “I’ve got some solar lights along the sidewalk; it looks kind of cool at night.”
Whether in a long-term care home, a restaurant, or in a homeless encampment, health experts can’t overstress the dangers of high heat to human health. But, they say, drawing attention to the problem is challenging because heat waves have yet to become lodged in the public consciousness, at least on the West Coast.
“It’s very difficult for humans to prepare for things they can’t imagine,” says Deborah Harford, an adaptation expert at Simon Fraser University.
Floods, she says, pack much more of a visual punch, and therefore are taken more seriously.
“It’s much harder to convey the risk of heat,” she says. “It doesn’t have the same effect as when you see a building with the water to the second floor windows.”
“There’s even a resistance to preparing for (heat emergencies) because it looks like alarmism until it happens,” she says, by which point, many people are already suffering, or worse, even dying.
But excess heat is starting to land on the radar as heat waves become the new reality of summers on the West Coast. “I think some areas of our system are really waking up to this,” Harford says.
Last year, during the “heat dome” emergency in B.C., heat-related workplace injury claims soared. WorkSafe BC accepted 115 claims in 2021, representing a 180 per cent increase from an average of 41 claims in the previous three years.
Back in Abbotsford, Joseph Sikora, an outreach worker with Ground Zero Ministries, has seen the impact in a community that’s not always represented by statistics.
Sikora visits the various camps on a regular basis, handing out water bottles, fruit, popsicles, “whatever we have.” The deliveries are met with gratefulness … and relief.
Five years ago, Sikora was living on the streets himself, addicted to hard drugs, barely surviving. “It was hell, and I actually thought that I was going to die from heat exhaustion.”
He knows firsthand what it means to be exposed to the punishing summer sun, among all the other challenges that come with being homeless.
Looking at some of the encampments where he delivers water, including a lot full of trailers and old motorhomes he refers to as “Ground Zero,” he wonders how some people power through the heat.
“I have been into some of the motorhomes where some of the folks can’t come out and get some food and water.”
“I have no idea how they’re even surviving in there.”