Postman Eugene Gates Jr. was delivering mail in the scorching heat of Dallas this summer when he suddenly passed out in a driveway. He was rushed to the hospital, but his life could no longer be saved.
His wife, Carla Gates, said she believed the heat was a factor in her 66-year-old husband’s death. However, he is still waiting for the autopsy results.
“When the doctor came and told me that Eugene could not survive, I was unconscious. I fell to the floor, screaming and wailing. I heard what he said, but I didn’t know what it meant. After that I don’t remember how I walked to the morgue to see Eugene. The last time I saw my husband alive in the room, he had a tube down his throat.”
When Eugene Gates died on June 20, the temperature was 98 degrees Fahrenheit or 36.6 Celsius, and the heat index – which also takes humidity into account – had soared to more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit or 43.3 Celsius.
A construction worker drinks water in Barcelona on July 18, 2023. (Photo: AFP)
“I will believe this until I die, that Eugene died due to the heat.”
Even when it seems clear that extreme heat was a factor in death, death certificates do not always reflect that.
Experts say the confusion over the way more than 3,000 counties calculate heat-related deaths means there’s never been definitive data to know how many people in America die each year from warming temperatures.
This imprecision hampers efforts to protect communities from extreme heat, as the officials who make policies and fund programs are unable to get the financial and other support needed to effect change.
Epidemiologist at the University of Washington, Prof. Kristie L. Ebi, who focuses on the impact of global warming on human health, says, “It is well known that not all heat-related deaths are reported… We find that most of these deaths are not recorded as heat-related. Nearly half are judged to have died from cardiovascular disease. For example, a person who dies of a heart attack, actually would not have had a heart attack if it were not for some reason.”
In fact, according to Kristie, having the right categorization will really help to increase public awareness and prevent death.
“Because then we can start developing early warning systems and targeting people who are at higher risk to make sure they are aware of the risk. Basically, all heat-related deaths are preventable. People don’t need to die from the heat.”
However, currently the only consistency in counting heat deaths in the US is the admission by some officials and climate experts that the number of deaths reported is very low.
A girl uses an umbrella to play near a water sprinkler in the hot weather in Vienna, Austria, July 23, 2019. (Photo: Reuters)
Metode “Counting Excess Deaths”
Many experts say a standard method that dates back decades – known as “counting excess deaths” – can better show how extreme heat harms humans.
Excess death counts are often used to estimate the death toll in natural disasters, where experts calculate the number of fatalities that exceeds the number of fatalities that occurred at the same time in the previous year during normal weather conditions.
The excess death tally was used to quantify the human impact of a heatwave in Chicago that killed more than 700 people in July 1995, most of whom were elderly black residents living alone.
The researchers also calculated excess deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide more complete information about direct and indirect deaths related to the coronavirus.
Currently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports only 600 to 700 heat-related deaths each year in America.
A study published last month in the journal Nature Medicine estimated there were more than 61,000 heat-related deaths last summer across Europe. The population of Europe is almost twice the population of America, but the number of deaths from heat is more than 100 times that.
Sameed Khatana, staff cardiologist at the Veterans Medical Center (VA Medical Center) in Philadelphia and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine said deaths where hot temperatures significantly contributed to them – for example in cases such as heart failure – should also be considered.
Khatana took part in a study published last year that calculated excess deaths across all American states. The research found that from 2008 to 2017, between 3,000 and 20,000 adult deaths from all causes listed on death certificates were related to extreme heat. Heart disease is recorded as the cause of about half of all these deaths.
People cool off in a water park during a heat wave in Phoenix, Arizona, US, July 16, 2023. (Photo: REUTERS/Liliana Salgad)
Following a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2021, the Canadian province of British Columbia reported more than 600 deaths from heat exposure. Oregon and Washington each reported more than 100 deaths.
Until now there has been no uniformity in who does the tallying of heat-related deaths across American jurisdictions.
Determining the Cause of Death Due to Hot Weather Takes a Long Time
Death investigations may in some settings be carried out by medical examiners, usually physicians trained in forensic pathology. Elsewhere, the coroner may be an elected sheriff, such as in Orange County, California. In some small Texas counties, judges can determine cause of death.
Utah and Massachusetts are some of the states that do not track heat-related deaths, where exposure to extreme heat is a secondary factor.
A man cools off in a fountain near the Pantheon, as a heat wave hits Italy, in Rome, July 19, 2023. (Photo: Reuters)
The CDC, which is often several years late in reporting on these matters, generally draws information on heat-related deaths from death certificate information available in local, state, tribal, and territorial databases.
In a statement the CDC said mortuary officials and others filling out death certificates were “encouraged to report all causes of death,” but did not need to attribute a contributing cause to death to exposure to extreme heat and include a diagnostic code for a temperature-related illness. hot.
Hess, the Arizona coroner, said determining that environmental heat was a factor in someone’s death is difficult and could take weeks, or even months of investigation, including toxicology tests.
Hess noted that Pima County this year began including heat-related deaths in its heat-related death tally. Maricopa County, in Phoenix, America’s hottest major city, has for years recorded heat-related deaths. And now Clark County, in Nevada, Las Vegas, is also considering heat-related deaths.
Maricopa’s Department of Public Health recorded 425 “heat-related” deaths last year, including those caused by secondary factors, such as heart attacks triggered by high temperatures. While up to August 5, 2023 they reported 59 heat-related deaths, while another 345 deaths are being investigated. The latest numbers follow Phoenix’s hottest month on record, and a record 31 straight days with temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit or 43.3 Celsius, or higher.
Dallas, which regularly experiences scorching summers with highs of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, has pushed out a heat warning this month. Dallas is also grappling with abysmal humidity.
Carla Gates Urges Government’s Serious Attention to Field Workers
Carla Gates said cities around the world must now learn to deal with extreme weather. She said her husband, Eugene, who has worked for 36 years, tries to protect himself by taking a chest full of ice and a few bottles of cold water with him on every trip.
“Our climate has changed. And I don’t think it’s going to come back like 20 years from now. So we have to get used to it and make adjustments.”
Carla wanted to honor her husband by pushing for legislation to ensure that people working outdoors were better protected from the heat. Gates said the day her husband died she was in an old mail truck with no air conditioning.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone, anyone who receives a call that their loved one died at work, doing something they love in the heat,” he said. (em/lt)