CBC National: No escape from the heat
Posted September 14, 2023
High indoor temperatures are dangerous, especially when there’s no relief at night. In a 5-city national project, CBC News uncovered how Canadians are suffering in their own homes — sometimes with fatal consequences.
Sam Johnson is out of breath as she answers the door, beads of sweat on her brow. She puts a hand to the back of her neck.
“It’s soaking wet,” she says.
It’s 9 p.m. and it’s 29 degrees in her apartment in New Westminster, B.C., a suburb of Vancouver. It’s been above 27 C all day. Johnson, 79, has heart failure and uses a walker or a cane to get around. Even with four fans going, the unrelenting heat in her apartment takes a toll, she says.
“I sleep maybe two and a half hours, half an hour at a time. It’s just too flipping hot. I could go outside, but I’m scared to do that in this neighborhood … because if somebody came at me, how would I ever get away?”
A CBC News investigation found people like Johnson are living in homes with heat and humidity levels experts consider dangerous around the clock.
Data from temperature and humidity sensors CBC placed in the homes of people across the country showed nighttime offers little to no relief in places without central cooling when daytime temperatures are high.
What’s needed, say doctors who study the effects of heat, are policies to keep people cool at all hours — a need that grows all the more urgent in homes that weren’t built for today’s warmer climate, with heat waves becoming more frequent and severe.
“Many people tend to think that if they remain indoors they’re safe,” said Glen Kenny, a professor and research chair in human environmental physiology at the University of Ottawa.
“The problem is that indoor environments can get really hot.”
The deadly heat dome in B.C. in 2021 — which wouldn’t have happened without climate change — shows the stakes of heat without relief.
Almost all of the 619 people who died, the B.C. Coroners Service concluded, died inside and without adequate cooling systems in their homes.
Yet, there is almost no publicly available information on how hot and humid it gets inside Canadian homes without central cooling or how long dangerously high temperatures persist.
CBC News set out to collect that data in five cities: Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Windsor. Reporters identified 10 households in each city with zero or minimal central cooling and installed heat and humidity sensors to take measurements every 10 minutes. CBC teams activated most of the sensors in late June and collected the data in mid-August.
In every city, CBC found people living in homes that, the majority of the time, stayed above 26 C — the maximum indoor temperature widely considered safe by experts. In some places, high rates of humidity made already sweltering indoor temperatures feel even hotter.
Dr. Aaron Orkin, an emergency department physician in Toronto, says CBC’s investigation breaks new ground.
“What this gives us, in a way that no other type of data can do, is a sense of what it looks like right in people’s homes, in the places that’s really hardest to escape.”
CBC teams kept in touch with the people living in those households throughout July and August to capture their experiences of the heat. Many struggled to sleep, others saw chronic health conditions flare up.
In one Vancouver-area home, an 88-year-old man did not survive the summer.
Here’s some of what we learned and what experts say needs to be done to protect those most at risk.
Why heat over 26 C can be dangerous
Denise Gauthier sits on her bed in her Manitoba Housing townhouse, where it is 27 degrees. She’s having trouble breathing. Normally when it gets this hot, she’d take a cold shower.
“But right now it’s so hot over here that I don’t even know if I could take a shower. It’s too hot in the bathroom.”
Gauthier, 68, lives in Winnipeg and has heart failure. For her, the heat is dangerous if she moves around too much. It makes it even harder for her to breathe.
“And that’s what I’m scared [of] because when it goes out of control … it’s like I have, like, a panic attack at the same time because I’m afraid.”
Gauthier sleeps with a CPAP machine to help her breathe. If it’s too hot in her bedroom, she sweats and the machine slides around on her face. If it slips off while she’s asleep, she says she could stop breathing.
Manitoba Housing installed a window-mounted air conditioner on Gauthier’s main floor on June 22, free of charge. But even with the air conditioner on the main floor, CBC’s sensor data shows the temperature in Gauthier’s upstairs hallway still hit 30 degrees in early August.
Sustained indoor temperatures above 26 C aren’t healthy for anyone, but they’re especially dangerous for seniors or people with underlying health conditions such as Gauthier, says Kenny.
Kenny’s lab at the University of Ottawa is home to the world’s only whole-body air calorimeter, a machine resembling a large soda can which precisely measures the heat dissipated by the human body during rest and exercise.
“So how much you sweat and how much heat you may gain from the environment,” he explained. “And knowing that information, we can address or define the limits that somebody may have.”
Those limits can vary by person, including whether someone is elderly or on certain medication.
His research has found 26 C is the highest indoor temperature bodies can generally sustain and is the basis for public health recommendations in several places across Canada.
And yet, CBC’s analysis found it is common for people without central cooling to spend days at a time at these temperatures.
Half of the households (25 of 49 sensors) where CBC News collected data over the summer spent a majority of their time at or above 26 C. (One of the 50 sensors stopped recording after three days, so that data is excluded.)
CBC’s analysis found that while temperatures generally go down at night outside, this was not always true indoors.
On average across the country, indoor temperatures peaked around 7 p.m.
In many residences where CBC placed sensors, windows were only on one wall and could only open so far, making it difficult for cooler night air to get in and impossible for there to be a crossbreeze.
Some people had to keep sliding doors and windows closed at night for security reasons or to contain pets. All this meant it took several hours for temperatures to climb down from that 7 p.m. peak and for many, stiflingly hot temperatures persisted well into the night.
Back in New Westminster, Sam Johnson sits on her couch next to a fan and watches TV. It’s how she’s spent many nights this summer, which has been more than two-and-a-half degrees hotter than usual in this part of the Lower Mainland.
High temperatures make it hard to sleep, Kenny said, and lack of sleep can in turn seriously compromise the body’s ability to recover.
“If you are trying to sleep at 26 degrees in the room … you would be uncomfortable. You’re probably … turning over, you’re sweating,” Kenny said. “As we get into hotter conditions, it creates a greater strain on the body.”
“That means the next day you’re not going to feel as well, you have a compromised ability to deal with that level of heat stress,” Kenny said, noting that extreme heat events can last as long as a week.
Johnson relates to that. She’ll often fall asleep on her couch during the day and doesn’t get out much.
“I’m not comfortable driving in this heat and feeling like this without sleep. I’m not out to kill people…. So I’m forced to be here.”
Cooling centres may not help
Public health advice, such as seeking out a cooler part of her home or going to a cooling centre, Johnson finds laughable. Even if there were a cooling centre open in the area, she could never get there.
“Oh yeah … I can just pop right over there,” she said dryly.
“I have heart failure. So as soon as I do any type of movement, the sweat just pours off of me. And so I could go to the library and I could stay there until six or seven, and then I could come back to this and not sleep all night and then get up and go back to the library.
“Those politicians have got it all figured out, don’t they?”
Cooling centres can be a reprieve from dangerously high temperatures in homes, Kenny said, but they can also offer a false sense of security.
Kenny’s team performed tests simulating the effect of a cooling centre and found people’s body temperatures shot up again very quickly upon re-entry to the heat. The problem was people were less aware of how hot they were.
“So that means that they may be more likely to be a bit more active when they get home. … They now may be at higher risk. Remember, whenever you do any kind of physical activity, your body’s generating a lot of heat.”
What’s needed, Kenny says, is for people to be given appropriate guidance upon leaving a cooling centre to limit their physical activity when they get back home.
Johnson knows well how high the stakes are. Three people in her building died during the province’s 2021 heat dome, she said. One was someone she knew.
“We have people in this building who are partially blind. We have people in wheelchairs.
The heat is just unbearable for all of us.”
The government should require landlords to install heat pumps, Johnson said, to keep this building and others like it at a safe temperature during hot weather.
Johnson applied recently for a free air conditioner through a B.C. government program that aims to purchase and distribute 8,000 of them to people in need. But she noted the form says it will take at least six weeks to process the application.
“So guess what? We’re going to get AC for Christmas.”
Weeks at a time in dangerous heat
Just over the bridge from where Johnson lives, it’s a sunny morning in late June in the Guildford neighbourhood of Surrey, southeast of Vancouver.
Hermann Gron, 88, is sitting in his favourite recliner behind a stately wooden desk, where he has the remote controls for his TV, his fans and his landline. He has a walker beside the desk. There are pictures of navy ships flying red and white Danish flags that Gron painted himself, and framed photos of family members who have passed away. The news is on TV, and Gron, a former officer in the Danish navy, is captivated by the story of the missing Titan submersible.
His apartment gets hot, but Gron says he can manage. When the afternoon sun beats in through the sliding glass door, which faces west, he puts a black umbrella outside to absorb some of the heat. Between this and the fans, he says, he makes do.
Gron does not have an air conditioner. Some of his neighbours who have them received letters from their landlord telling them their tenancy agreement prohibits them and they have to be removed. Gron has been living in the apartment for 18 years, he explains. He is paying below-market rent and does not want to make trouble. So he’s never asked for permission to install one.
The summer in Metro Vancouver is hotter than usual and by early August, Gron is in distress.
“This is too much,” he says of the heat, when reached by phone. He has heart failure, he says, and had to go to the hospital at the end of July due to shortness of breath. He adds that he really would like an air conditioner.
Two days later, when reached by phone on a Friday afternoon to confirm an interview time the following week, Gron’s tone has changed. He raises his voice, sounds confused and says he no longer wants to participate in CBC’s heat tracking project.
The next night, CBC’s sensor data shows the temperature in Gron’s apartment was 29 degrees. A friend checking in on him became so concerned that he brought Gron an air conditioner from his own apartment.
On Sunday, Gron’s breathing problems returned and he was admitted to Surrey Memorial Hospital, where he died in the early hours of Monday, Aug. 14.
Gron’s friend, who CBC News has agreed not to identify due to his own vulnerable situation, said doctors told him the causes of Gron’s death were congestive heart failure, pneumonia in both lungs, and liver and kidney failure.
Gron’s friend said he told the doctors looking after Gron what the temperatures in his apartment had been.
“They were convinced that this condition was worsened by the heat,” he said.
CBC collected the data from Gron’s apartment after his death. It showed the temperature had been at or just below 30 degrees for most of the summer, at one point going as high as 32.
For 43 of the 58 days the sensor was in Gron’s apartment, the temperature never went below 26.
What needs to be done
Extreme heat is already the top weather-related cause of death in Canada, and heat waves that affect human health are getting more common due to climate change.
The federal government’s national adaptation strategy, created with provinces, territories, Indigenous nations and municipalities, aims to address heat deaths by retrofitting existing buildings and improving the building code, among other actions.
That takes time, said Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in an interview with Laura Lynch, host of CBC Radio’s What On Earth, but cutting carbon pollution is urgent.
“The more we delay action, the more there will be people suffering and unfortunately death in our own country and around the world.”
Canada aims to eliminate deaths from extreme heat by 2040.
Orkin, the emergency department doctor in Toronto, has more immediate suggestions.
“A gentleman who’s 88, with those sorts of health conditions has heat vulnerability and we need ways to control it,” he said.
“We need to think about how we can help people right in their homes. And the way to do that is not to say if it’s hot, you need to go to a cooling centre. The way to do that is to make sure that people who need air conditioning have air conditioning.”
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said there are things people can do to protect themselves from the heat, such as putting towels in the freezer, blocking windows during the day and strategic use of fans.
But she also emphasized that people have to look after each other. For those most at risk, Henry says, there is safety in social connection.
“My elderly grandmother-in-law, before she passed away, you know, she would come down and stay with us when it was really, really hot. We had air conditioning in one area of the building that we lived in. So having those spots where somebody is safe,” she said.
Public health officials and community or seniors’ groups have a role to play in ensuring the networks are there to help people with no place to go when the weather gets hot, she added.
“To provide water, to help them … put a cool cloth around their neck, to make sure that they’re doing some things to keep their environment cooler and to help support them if they need … a period of time to cool off in a library or the mall or some place that has air conditioning.”
Henry knows the urgency will only increase.
“We are seeing the effects of climate change. And yes, I would have loved it if people had paid attention 30 years ago or 10 years ago … when we started talking about these things. But we are where we are now.”
With files from Caroline Barghout and Joannne Levasseur
Article by Tara Carman, Lori Ward and Dexter McMillan for CBC News