Research models that estimate how many people might die in urban heat waves will help government agencies better respond to them, said a biostatistician who predicts that air pollution will make summers in the United States deadlier by the end of the century. The research is also an argument for stricter regulation of pollutants, according to Francesca Dominici, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate dean for information technology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dominici was a guest lecturer at a School of Forestry and Environmental Studies seminar in January.
The most severe cardiovascular and respiratory effects stem from elemental carbon and organic carbon matter—pollutants that are one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair. These particles are generated from vehicle emissions, diesel engines, and burning wood. In 1995, some 700 deaths in Chicago were attributed to a July heat wave, said Dominici. By 2081, a hot spell could kill between 2,100 and 17,500 people there, she said—a figure that can’t be attributed only to a larger population.
Dominici and her colleagues developed the models by studying recent weather records, environmental trends, and Medicare data. In Chicago, they found that hospital admissions for heat stroke between 1987 and 2005 “identified a heat wave much better than the temperature [readings].”