Heat-Related Death Spike in Arizona

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

The number of heat-related deaths in Arizona spiked last year, a dangerous combination resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the hottest summer on record. State officials suggest that in 2020, at least 494 people died of heat-related complications, a marked increase from the previous record of 283 heat-related deaths in 2019.  

Last year, Phoenix broke records for the most days with temperatures of 100 degrees or hotter (145 days) and the most days that hit 110 or hotter (53 days).

Why This Matters: Last year’s extreme heat offers a preview of a potential worst-case scenario, as climate change increases temperatures in the Southwest. Extreme temperatures are a particularly deadly result of global warming, as more people in the United States die from heat-related emergencies than all other weather-related hazards. 

Moreover, society’s most vulnerable tend to be the most likely to suffer from heat-related ailments: older residents, those living unsheltered on the streets, outdoor workers and people who live in mobile homes or without functioning air conditioning.  

Overheating is also an environmental justice issue, as research has found that low-income and nonwhite neighborhoods tend to have fewer trees, which has rendered formerly redlined neighborhoods at least five degrees hotter in summer than other neighborhoods. Low-income Americans also often lack access to air conditioning due to the unaffordable nature of home energy costs. 

Though this problem will be particularly devastating to Southwestern cities, extreme heat will affect the entire world. Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto, senior social scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists told Salon:

Every single place where there is a built environment, where there are cities and roadways and glass and pavement and buildings and highways and cars and air conditioning and so on, are going to be hotter than the surrounding areas where it’s a little more rural or less. We see cities not just like the ones you mentioned, — Phoenix, Las Vegas, Tucson — but many in India, many in the Persian Gulf, that, as climate change continues unabated, are facing significant threats to the population.

A Search for Solutions: The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on Arizona’s cooling mechanisms. The pandemic and its related economic crises have left many more people unhoused or unable to afford air conditioning, while the government also closed down cooling centers to avoid spreading the virus further.

Some potential solutions include specialized cooling centers with good enough circulation that the coronavirus doesn’t fester, expanding the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, creating more sources of affordable housing, and letting residents postpone rent and utility payments. In addition, researchers advocate weatherizing low-income homes, and setting up a heat alert system inside the house of someone that lives alone. 

To cover the cost of these solutions, Arizona must prioritize funding climate-change mitigation projects. This funding could avert future disaster spending: a 2018 study from the National Institute of Building Sciences found that every dollar spent on hazard mitigation over 23 years saved $6 in future disaster costs. 

Patricia Solís, a researcher who leads ASU’s Knowledge Exchange for Resilience, emphasized the urgency of the problem in an interview with AZ Central: I don’t believe that there’s ever been a disaster in the United States declared for heat waves or extreme heat. We normally see that as something that just happens and we have to adjust to. But if there was every year a hurricane coming through in which 200 people perished, we would call that a disaster, and we might declare a disaster.”


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