City eliminates heat alert program
July 29, 2006
Hamilton's public health department is no longer issuing heat alerts. The decision appears to have been made last month and was communicated to some residential care facilities and community organizations by public health officials.
A June 27 letter from the city's Associate Medical Officer of Health, Matthew Hodge, says the heat alert program was recently reviewed "to determine whether or not we are providing a service that effectively protects the health and well-being of our residents". One of the conclusions was "that local weather patterns are such that alerts may be so frequent as to lack credibility".
The letter goes on to say that "the population at risk from sustained extreme heat is persons living in multiple unit residences with poor air circulation and no air conditioning. Hamilton is fortunate in that evening cooling provides relief from extreme temperatures for people who can open the windows of the spaces where they live."
The letter concludes that instead of issuing heat alerts public health officials "are focusing our efforts on effective communication about air quality" because the department believes "a combined approach to poor air quality and extreme temperature is likely more effective."
The cancellation is being opposed by social welfare advocates including the Solutions for Housing Action Committee (SHAC) and the Roomers and Boarders Committee. Tom Cooper sent an open letter to the city on behalf of the two groups on July 20. He pointed recent improvements in Toronto's system, including the provision of cooling centres, and challenged the logic of the city's decision.
"Your contention that evening cooling in Hamilton will remedy the oppressive heat that some vulnerable tenants may experience in multi-unit residences - whether in low-income rental housing, rooming houses or even accessory apartments is contrary to the experiences of many of the tenants from whom we hear."
Toronto opens some air conditioned public buildings during extreme heat alerts, with Metro Hall made available 24 hours a day to provide heat relief. Toronto officials recently went door-to-door to encourage landlords to provide a cool room and take other steps to assist tenants during heat alerts. Most other Ontario jurisdictions with heat alert systems limit their actions to providing advice.
Cooper pointed to the high poverty rate in Hamilton - tied with Toronto as the highest in the province - which makes air conditioning and even fans unaffordable for many of the city's residents. He also noted that most landlords charge $25-50 a month fees to tenants who install window air conditioners in their units.
"For tenants on social assistance or fixed incomes these energy costs can be overwhelming and so many tenants go without and live in unhealthy and unsafe condition", Cooper argued.
The letter drew a response from Hodge who said the city has "limited resources" and is trying to utilize them in the best way possible. Hodge also argues that the heat alert system is not required.
"Our consultations with Environment Canada and scientific evidence about the health effects of heat do not point to significant, measurable health effects of heat in the City of Hamilton," writes Hodge. "While local weather may include isolated days of extreme heat, nighttime cooling and the presence of the lake as a moderating influence combine to reduce risks to human health significantly."
Hodge says public officials looked at Toronto's cooling centres and calculated that not many people would use them in Hamilton. "Applying a 20% rule of thumb to reflect the differences in population, that would amount to roughly 100 people spread across Hamilton."
He also told Cooper that the city is "developing an inventory of residential premises whose occupants may be at high risk in the event of extreme heat so that relevant responses can be developed that are tailored to the populations at risk".
Many southern Ontario communities have established a heat alert program over the last few years in an attempt to cut heat-related deaths. They include Guelph, Waterloo, Halton, Niagara, Peel and Toronto. At least the latter two have issued heat alerts this weekend as humidex values climb over 40 degrees celsius. Forecasts for Hamilton predict that the humidex will only drop to 30 tonight, and will exceed 40 on each of Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Toronto has issued seven heat alerts this summer plus four extreme heat alerts. Their website says the system was adopted in 2000 after "researchers analyzed 46 years of climate-related data for the City of Toronto, including 17 years of mortality data, to determine when weather conditions contribute to increased probability of premature deaths."
That study found that Toronto experienced an average of 120 heat-related deaths per year. The city's education program aimed at landlords says on days with extreme heat, "the average daily number of deaths [is] about twice as high as for comfortable days."
The correspondence between Hodge and Cooper is posted on the CATCH website at http://www.hamiltoncatch.org/pdfs/Heat-alert-cancellation.pdf.
More information about Toronto's heat alert system can be found at http://www.toronto.ca/health/heat_notification.htm.