The Multnomah County Medical Examiner reported today that five people died as a result of extreme heat waves that baked the Portland metro region for multiple days in July and then in August 2022.
The forensic conclusion, which was made final as reviews finished this morning, March 7, follows months of investigation and toxicology tests into eight suspected hyperthermia deaths. Three of the eight deaths were found to have been caused by factors other than heat.
The five deaths from overheating underscore the ongoing threat that extreme heat poses to both housed and unhoused people in our region. Before 2021, heat deaths in Multnomah County were rare, with no deaths most years and just a single death recorded in 2016 and 2018. In 2021 there were 72 heat deaths, 69 of which were attributed to the heat dome in June 2021.
“Extreme heat events continue to be a threat in our area every summer, particularly to those over 60 years old and to individuals without a way of keeping cool when temperatures soar,” Deputy Health Officer Dr. Teresa Everson said. “Public Health will continue to monitor for extreme weather conditions, to educate the community about measures to take to avoid overheating, and to encourage the opening of cooling shelters when needed. But we also rely on you as friends, neighbors, family and community members to watch out for and support those most at risk from heat-related injury.”
July heat wave claims the most lives
Four of the five hyperthermia deaths last year occurred during the the longest stretch of extreme heat on record for our region, when community members experienced seven straight days of heat above 95 degrees F from July 25 through July 31. The National Weather Service had issued an excessive Heat Watch beginning Monday, July 25, warning of dangerously hot conditions, and the Oregon governor, Multnomah County Chair and Portland Mayor each declared a state of emergency.
Chief Medicolegal Investigator Kimberly DiLeo confirmed that one person died of hyperthermia July 28, 2022, two people died on July 30, and a fourth on July 31.
A fifth person died of overheating Aug. 10 in a second, shorter heat wave when temperatures reached 100 degrees.
Most who died were housed
Similar to what the Medical Examiner found in the June 2021 heat deaths, most of those who died in summer 2022 were housed and had no air conditioning. Most were also non-Hispanic, White males, living alone or in multi-family dwellings.
Just one of the five deaths occurred in a person experiencing homelessness.
Of the four people who died indoors, one died in a house, two died on the fourth floor of an apartment building, and one died on the sixth floor. Health experts say more research is needed on how the floor number drives risk. Although heat rises, health department officials have found there is less data on the impact of living on upper floors, while rental housing — and its relationship to income — may be more significant.
The lack of air conditioning or fans was a significant factor. Two had no air conditioning or fan, another had a non-functioning air conditioning unit, while another had a nonfunctioning portable unit and a fan. A fifth who succumbed had a fan.
Four of those who died were identified as male, and one was female. Just one was under age 50; three were aged 60 to 69, with one aged 70 to 79.
Each of those who died of hyperthermia succumbed in a different ZIP code, with one death in each of the following: 97201, 97202, 97203, 97205, 97266. Although three of the ZIP codes did not see heat deaths in 2021, the 97205 and 97266 zip codes were the sites of earlier heat deaths. The ZIP code 97266 specifically includes the Lents neighborhood and is one of the hottest parts of the city of Portland.
Climate Change Connection
A Fall 2021 tri-county review on the impact of climate change, “Regional Climate and Health Monitoring Report,” found that exposure to higher temperatures is one of the more direct impacts related to extreme weather driven by climate change. Those events can lead to heat-related illness and the report found that, overall, extreme heat has caused more deaths than all other weather events combined.
The report also found that average annual temperature in the Pacific Northwest has increased 1.5°F compared to the first half of the 20th century. Most communities in Oregon are expected to see 30 additional days over 86°F by 2050.