Why It's So Difficult to Measure Heat Deaths

Without a standard for recording and classifying heat-related deaths, experts believe the scale of the problem is much bigger than numbers let on.

2 minute read

August 15, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Maricopa County, Arizona

f11photo / Shutterstock

As this summer's heat waves showed, extreme weather can take a deadly–and costly–toll on communities and infrastructure not prepared to handle rising temperatures. As Chloe Jones and Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado write, "[h]eat-related deaths are a growing concern for anyone exposed to the elements for long periods of time, or whose health conditions or age make them particularly at-risk in extreme weather conditions, as climate change intensifies temperatures." However, "[t]here isn’t a standard in how to record, count or classify" heat deaths, making it difficult to understand the scope of the problem. 

"Deaths from the heat are not always reported as such and experts say many are undercounted or misclassified." Medically, "[t]he only way to accurately know whether someone died of heat or if their death was related to heat is if their body temperature is taken right before or immediately after their death." For people like farm workers, who are twenty times more likely to die from heat stress than other occupations, "[i]t is nearly impossible to understand the gravity and impact heat has on deaths, especially for people who work outdoors, without accurate data."

"If the scale of the problem isn’t known, it is difficult to roll out effective mitigation measures. Accurate data would potentially be able to push states and local jurisdictions toward addressing heat-related deaths more head-on, especially as temperatures continue to rise with climate change."

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