Over the past week, most British Columbians have experienced very high temperatures, reaching over 40° C in certain areas of the province. Extreme heat has proven to be a big health risk for people, as proven by the 2021 summer deaths report that highlighted the effect of last year.

The Herald spoke with the Vice President of Health Initiatives and Program Services at the B.C. Lung Foundation, Dr. Menn Biagtan and discussed what they have learned from last year’s heat dome, the health risks associated with extreme heat and safety tips for the current heat wave the province is experiencing.

1) What were the main takeaways from the 2021 heat dome?

“The main take aways are:
People can do some thing to prevent themselves from suffering from any heat related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Be prepared as some are caught flatfooted.
Make resources for people available in the community.
More public health education is needed especially pre-wildfire season or beginning of the summer.
Heat affects everyone but there are certain groups of people who are most susceptible to the effects of heat and wildfire smoke i.e., the elderly especially those living alone, those with chronic conditions such as lungs, heart and diabetes, those marginalized group of people, young children etc.
People should have a plan for what to do in extreme heat.

Consistent messaging and proper communications to people (especially those who are susceptible) are necessary.
Individuals, homes, workplaces, and municipalities should have a plan in place.

Based on the coroner’s report from the heat dome in 2021 many of those who died were elderly people, living alone. This is why public education is targeting those elderly individuals and living alone. Health messaging are being provided pre-season, heat warning and during extreme heat emergency.”

2) How does the extreme heat affect individuals?

“Extreme heat can affect anyone, but some people may be more susceptible. As the temperature gets hotter, our blood vessels open up to lower the temperature by pumping more blood to the body, making the heart work harder and causing mild symptoms such as skin rash and dizziness. Excessive sweating from the heat can lead to some fluid loss. All these could lead to lower blood pressure therefore could lead to the symptoms mentioned.

Air quality during heat events could lead to high concentrations of ozone or particulate matter especially if there are wildfires burning nearby. Ozone and particulate matter (PM2.5 ) when inhaled could worsen symptoms of asthma , COPD, and other lung conditions. Heat and poor air quality can affect your body in different ways and some people are susceptible to the effects of both. Heat also poses as a bigger threat than wildfire smoke for most people so prioritize staying cool.

People most likely to be affected:
Older adults, especially those aged 60 and older
People with mental health issues
People who live alone
People with pre-existing health conditions
People who are pregnant
Infants and young children
People with limited mobility
People who are marginalized”

3) What are the best practices to avoid the impact of extreme heat?

“Create a cooling area in your home ( a room with an air conditioning unit or part of the house that is much cooler).
Listen to heat alerts or heat warning issued by Environmental Climate Change Canada.

Know the resources available in your community such as cooling centres like public libraries, malls, recreation centres or any designated space by your municipality.

Monitor indoor temperatures; 26 °C and below is safe, more than 26°C to 31°C may be harmful to susceptible individuals, prolonged exposure to temperature above 31°C should be avoided”

4) If affected, what is the best way to treat a person suffering from the extreme heat? Are there actionable steps for instantaneous relief?

“If you experience these symptoms, you should stay cool, drink a lot of fluid, wear light clothing, limit your activities both indoor and outdoor and stay indoor. If you don’t have a cooler space inside your home, then you can go to clean air shelters or cooling shelters.

If people are experiencing the following symptoms, then it could be a heat stroke. Treat this as an emergency and call 911.

High body temperature
Fainting and decrease in concentration
Lack of coordination
Very hot red skin

While waiting for the paramedics to arrive, the person should drink a lot of fluid, apply a cold or wet towel to the body and go to a cooler space of the house or even better, an airconditioned room.

If you know a loved one who is living alone, call and check on them, especially during high temperatures. Have a friend check on time to make sure that you will be able to get the medical treatment needed appropriately. You could register at your local health authority’s Buddy Check program and someone from the health authority will reach out to you.”

5) Are there common misconceptions people have in addressing the heat that could do more harm than good?

“Some young, healthy, and “fit” people think that they are immune to heat, but in reality, we are not. Some common questions asked are ‘should they continue exercise routine despite of the heat alerts or warning?’ Yes they can. However, we advise that people should decrease the intensity and time of their exercise. Avoid strenuous activities during this time.

Most of the time when there is a heat event, wildfires also happen. If there are wildfires in your area, make sure that your doors and windows are closed. Stay indoors and, if you have an air purifier, use it to remove some of the air pollutants infiltrating your home. Consider purchasing this appliance as it is best to have one for these instances.

If you have an air conditioning and it’s smoky outside, put it on re-circulate mode. Electric fans only work to a certain extent. We really do not recommend the use of electric fans as it only gives the perception that it cools the air but in reality they do not. They will only circulate the warm air. They don’t lower body temperature and may take multiple fans strategically positioned to move cooler air into the home overnight.”

Resources available to the community:
Extreme Heat – Fraser Health – Preparing for heat events – Fraser Health Authority
Staying healthy in the Heat fact sheets – Health Canada Fact Sheet: Staying Healthy in the Heat – Canada.ca
Beat the Heat B.C- HealthLink BC Beat the Heat | HealthLink BC
Extreme Heat events Guidelines- Adapting to Extreme Heat Events: Guidelines for Assessing Health Vulnerability – Canada.ca Health Canada
Extreme Heat can be a killer – Preparing for Heat Events (bccdc.ca) BCCDC
BC Lung Foundation – https://bclung.ca/
Vancouver Coastal Health Authority – http://www.vch.ca/Documents/extreme-heat-poster.pd

Wildfire smoke resources:
Wildfire Smoke (bccdc.ca)