Western Canada heat wave: How to stay cool and plan for future hot spells

Reports of possible heat-related deaths in Western Canada have heightened concerns across the region, as temperatures soared to all-time record levels this week.

At least 233 people died in the British Columbia between Friday and Monday, about 100 more than the average for a four-day period, the province’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said on Tuesday. That number was expected to rise as more reports were filed amid the heat wave, she said.

Read more: Western Canada’s extreme heat wave: Some experts have ‘never seen’ anything like it

In Burnaby, B.C., alone, more than 25 people died in a 24-hour span, with many of the deaths believed to be heat-related.

“We are seeing this weather can be deadly for vulnerable members of our community, especially the elderly and those with underlying health issues. It is imperative we check on one another during this extreme heat,” Cpl. Mike Kalanj with Burnaby RCMP said in a statement Tuesday.

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Dr. Edward Xie, an emergency physician at the University Health Network in Toronto, Ont., described the latest heat wave as “challenging and tragic.”

“I’m worried that if the burden on people, families and communities can already be this bad with one degree of average global temperature rise, things could get much worse if we don’t take fast, effective and equitable action on climate change,” he told Global News.

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Temperatures are expected to drop to the mid-20s in parts of B.C., Yukon and the Northwest Territories in the coming days, but any reprieve for the Prairie provinces is further off.

Here is what you should know about the risks of extreme heat and how to keep safe:

What are the risks?

Exposure to extreme heat can cause a number of illnesses, leading to long-term health problems and even death, according to Health Canada.

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The illnesses include edema (swelling of hands, feet and ankles), rash, muscle cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Read more: Rise in heat-related deaths and calls in B.C. strains emergency services

Extreme thirst, tiredness, weakness, nausea, headache and rapid breathing are some of the symptoms associated with heat-related illnesses. People can also experience vomiting, flushed skin and decreased urination.

“If steps aren’t taken to cool down, heat-related illnesses can get worse. You could become confused, faint, or have other organ failures,” Xie told Global News.

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He said the main risks associated with extremely hot weather relate to the body overheating and not being able to cool down properly.

Read more: B.C. heat wave raises concerns for seniors, people experiencing homelessness

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Older adults are at a greater risk. This may be because of natural changes in the body that make it harder to cool down, medications that can contribute to overheating and health conditions that can worsen in hot weather, according to Xie.

Young children and people who work in hot environments — such as restaurants, construction sites and farms – are also vulnerable and have to be “extra careful,” he added.

But these problems can be prevented.

What you can do to stay safe

To avoid dehydration, it is important to drink lots of water before you feel thirsty and eat more fruits and vegetables, especially those that have high water content.

What you wear can also help avoid sun exposure. This includes loose-fitting, light-coloured clothing, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.

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Read more: Western Canada heat wave has unusual characteristic, high nighttime temperatures: experts  

Xie advised taking cool showers, using a fan to move air across your skin or finding air-conditioned spaces.

“Sweating is what our body does naturally to cool itself. We can help the cooling process by drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding feeling thirsty and slowing down our activities.”

But, in reality, there are “very few measures that are easy to do when it’s 40 degrees Celsius outside,” says Adam Rysanek, an assistant professor of environmental systems at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver.

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How to cool indoor spaces

A lack of air conditioning in homes and public buildings has only made matters worse for people living on the West Coast.

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“The majority of our buildings … do not have cooling. So the big challenge for the West Coast is actually how do we adapt our existing buildings to deal with these conditions,” said Rysanek.

In the absence of mechanical air conditioning, ceiling fans or stand-up fans can be used, said Marianne Touchie, an assistant professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto.

You can also open up your windows at night time when the air is cooler to allow cross-ventilation, she said. Keeping the shades down during the day can block the sunlight and prevent the building from warming up, Touchie added.

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Rysanek said closing the windows in the morning is a good idea since lower nighttime temperatures can help cool down homes before the next sunrise.

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Going forward, technical interventions, such as air-conditioning, as well as more energy-efficient alternatives, will be needed to counter future heat waves in the country, both Rysanek and Touchie agreed.

“It’s a fine balance because as our buildings emit more greenhouse gas emissions as a result of that energy use, we’re just exacerbating the whole climate change effect,” said Touchie.

Planning ahead

On Monday, 103 heat records were shattered across B.C., Alberta, Yukon and N.W.T. according to Environment Canada.

Read more: Report warns of ‘large gaps’ in Canada’s preparedness for climate change disasters

As people in the western provinces continue to grapple with the soaring heat, there are lessons that can be learned for planners and policymakers.

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“I think we need to be thinking about how we design our buildings in order to cope with this future climate,” said Touchie.

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Passive cooling without using any energy is one option, according to Touchie. For new buildings, this can be done by either using solar shades or allowing cross-ventilation by having windows on both sides.

As for old and existing buildings, when components such as windows need to be replaced, building managers can look for ways to ensure larger openings to maximize natural ventilation.

We will see longer and more frequent extreme heat events, so this is something we need to start planning for in the future, as well as dealing with the acute issues right now,” said Touchie.

–With files from the Canadian Press

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