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'Official' Heat Stroke Deaths in NYC Only a Glimpse of True Toll of Summer

Thursday, July 18, 2013

New York City has reported only one heat stroke death this summer. But other people have likely died due to causes related to the heat whose deaths have not been publicized in the same way.

Unlike some other cities, New York City's medical examiner only reports heat-related fatalities attributed to heat stroke, also known as hyperthermia. This generally means individuals who have a core body temperature of 105 degrees or higher.

Patrick Kinney, a professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, said that the medical examiner's definition is more verifiable and takes less guess work, but it under-counts the number of other fatalities due to heat.

"Maybe in most cases, they are ill with some sort of disease like heart disease or lung disease and so that's what gets on the death certificate," he said. "But they die on a day when temperatures are high."

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene does do statistical analyses to publicize the broader impact of heat waves. It estimated that 100 people died in a 2006 due to conditions likely aggravated by a heat wave then, in addition to 40 deaths attributed directly to heat stroke. But that estimate did not come out until later that year, well after that heat wave passed, and as it was based on a statistical analysis, it did not include any information about the victims. 

The health department did give out other, more immediate information about the impact of this week's excessive temperatures, however: from Monday through Wednesday, it said the number of visits to emergency rooms due to heat illnesses was twice what would have been expected at this time of year, and the number of heat-related ambulance calls was three-times above expectations.

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