A research paper studying who died during B.C.’s 2021 heat dome found people with schizophrenia, those with certain chronic illnesses and those who use substances were especially at risk.
Authored by B.C. Centre for Disease Control researchers, the March 15 paper compares the 1,614 deaths recorded between June 25 and July 2, 2021 – 740 of them considered excessive – with deaths recorded during the same period in the eight years prior.
The largest jump in deaths researchers saw was among people with schizophrenia. They were at least three times more likely to die during 2021’s heat dome than in a non-heat dome year.
Researchers say there are a number of risk factors that could make people with schizophrenia more susceptible to heat-related death, including experiencing psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or having anosognosia – a lack of insight into their own illness.
People with schizophrenia are also more likely to be socially isolated and have a lower income, both of which are increase risk during extreme weather events. Researchers say some medications used to treat schizophrenia can also play a role in someone overheating.
Death rates were also up during the heat dome for people with certain diseases. Those with chronic kidney disease were 1.36 times were likely to die than in a normal year and those with parkinsonism were 1.21 times more likely to perish.
People with ischemic heart disease (1.18 times), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (1.13 times), asthma (1.11 times), and diabetes (1.10 times) also faced an elevated risk of death during the heat dome.
Another notable risk factor researchers found was substance use. People with a dependence on substances were 1.15 times more likely to die during the heat dome than during the same period in years prior.
Michael Lee, the study’s lead author and an epidemiologist with the BCCDC, said he hopes by identifying who is the most risk during extreme heat events, people can be better prepared to protect the most vulnerable when another such event inevitably occurs again.
“Climate change has real impacts on our health, and we can help limit those impacts when we know what they are and how to prepare.”
In June 2022, the BC Coroners Service released a report into the prior summer’s deaths and issued a number of recommendations. Among them, the service asked the provincial government to look into issuing cooling devices as medical equipment for people most at risk of dying.
That review was supposed to be complete by December 2022, but is still in the works as of March.