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The death of 3 women at the start of the heat wave raises questions and fears

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CHICAGO (AP) — Temperatures barely climbed into the 90s and only for a few days. But the discovery of the bodies of three women inside a Chicago seniors’ residence this month has left the city searching for answers to questions that were meant to be addressed after a heat wave more long and hotter killed more than 700 people nearly three decades ago.

Now the city – and the country – is faced with the reality that due to climate change, deadly heat waves can hit just about anywhere, not just in the height of summer and not shouldn’t last long.

“Hotter, more dangerous heat waves are coming earlier, in May … and the other thing is that we are getting older and more and more people are living alone,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at the University of New York, who wrote “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of a Chicago Disaster. about the 1995 heat wave. “It’s a formula for disaster.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to determine the causes of death of the three women whose bodies were found in the James Sneider Apartments on May 14. But the families of the victims have already filed or plan to file wrongful death lawsuits against the companies that own and operate the buildings.

The city council member whose ward includes the neighborhood where the building is located said she experienced sweltering temperatures in the complex during her visit, including in a unit where heat sensors reached 102 degrees.

“These are elderly residents, residents with health issues (and) they shouldn’t be in these conditions,” Alderman Maria Hadden said in a Facebook video shot outside the apartments.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that communities nationwide are still learning how deadly the heat can be. It took the sight of refrigerated trucks full of corpses after Chicago’s 1995 heat wave to send the message that the city was sadly unprepared for a silent, invisible disaster that claimed more than twice as many lives. than the great Chicago fire of 1871.

This awareness has led to a system in which city workers call in the elderly and frail and turn city buildings into 24-hour cooling centers when temperatures turn oppressive.

What happened this month reminds us that the safeguards in place to make sure people don’t freeze to death because they haven’t paid their heating bills often don’t exist for prevent people from overheating in their homes.

“We don’t have anything for air conditioning,” Hadden said.

An expert is not surprised.

“We recognize that people need heating in cold weather and put in place programs, financial assistance, to enable that, but we don’t do it for cooling,” said Gregory Wellenius, professor of environmental health at the Boston University which studied heat-related deaths. “But subsidies for cooling are really controversial (because) for a lot of people, cooling is seen as a luxury item.”

In Chicago, Hadden said the building management company believes turning off the heat and turning on the air conditioning isn’t allowed until June 1, due to the city’s heat ordinance. the city. But while she said the ordinance has no such requirement, the explanation may at least be a signal that the ordinance should be changed to better protect vulnerable people from the heat.

Wellenius said statistics show that while more than 80% of homes in cities like Dallas and Phoenix have air conditioning, the percentage is much lower in cities like Boston and New York.

And in the Pacific Northwest, the percentage is even lower, which was highlighted in Oregon, Washington and western Canada last June, when temperatures soared to 118 degrees Fahrenheit. , killing 600 or more people.

There is encouraging news.

“More people have air conditioning and we are more aware of the health risks of heat waves,” Klinenberg said.

Yet there is evidence that people don’t appreciate or even know how dangerous the heat can be.

In a study published in 2020, Wellenius and other researchers estimated that about 5,600 deaths a year nationwide could be attributed to high heat – eight times more than the 700 heat-related deaths that the study revealed were officially reported each year.

Wellenius said the reasons for what he called a “big miscalculation” start with the fact that official statistics only count death certificates that list heat as the sole cause of death. In some cases, the heat is not listed as a cause, even though it may have led to the death of people with other conditions.

He said the same thing happened in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when people who died in nursing homes in Europe “were not tested for COVID, so they weren’t counted. like COVID deaths.”

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, the medical examiner’s office reported two heat-related deaths last year and seven the previous year.

It’s unclear exactly how many deaths in the United States are heat-related today. Wellenius’ study, published in 2020, is the result of research from 1997 to 2006. And Klinenberg said the issue has been complicated by the pandemic because those most at risk of being killed by COVID-19 are also the most at risk of being killed by extreme heat.

“It is difficult to distinguish excessive heat deaths from COVID deaths,” he said.

Still, Hadden knows something needs to be done to deal with the heat which may hit earlier and later in the year than before.

“We have to plan for this,” she said.

Klinenberg wonders if cities will follow up on such discussions.

“The heat never seems to be the most important thing in cities and by the time it feels like the most important thing, it’s too late to do anything about it,” he said.

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