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Heat-related deaths hit historic high in 2021

A new study shows interesting findings about how heat affects people in Maricopa County.

PHOENIX — We're learning more details about that record-breaking heat in 2021, which contributed to the highest number of heat-related deaths since Maricopa County began tracking the issue in 2006.

It's no secret Arizona gets hot, but the findings of a new study show just how serious the high temperatures can be.

"The big takeaway is our numbers are high and these are preventable deaths," said Nick Staab, a Medical Epidemiologist at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. "If we work to identify the people who are high risk, and give them the resources they need, then we should be able to get this number to come down."

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The 'Heat Associated Death Report' released by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, shows there were 339 heat-related deaths in 2021. That's up 16 from the year prior.

"I think what is most important and what we really want to communicate with this report, is we are all vulnerable to heat-related illness and death," said Staab. "Certainly some individuals have higher risk than others, but here in Maricopa County it's something we need to be thinking about."

Of the 339 deaths, 75% happened outside. The study found 130 were people experiencing homelessness. Of those w 86% had an air conditioner. 75% though had an air conditioner that wasn't working.

Most of the deaths happened in the summer, but the Health Department points out heat-related deaths can happen as early as April and happen until November.

It's also not just a risk for people not familiar with the heat. The study found 86% of people who died lived in Maricopa County, and in fact 2/3 of those people lived in the area for more than 20 years.

"Heat is increasing across the whole country, and specifically for this area, the southwest US, each decade we're raising on average about 1/2 a degree, which doesn't seem like a lot," said Tom Frieders with the Phoenix National Weather Service.

Frieders says that's significant.

"As urbanization continues to expand across the area, you have more concrete, asphalt, buildings and that contain that heat," he said. "And so we're seeing year after year of above normal temperatures here locally."

Officials also say, moving forward, people need to be aware.

"You don't get used to the heat the longer you live here," reminds Staab. "You may just become more accustomed to it, but not necessarily acting safely in it. so that's what we need people to do."

That's why they say to stay hydrated, take breaks, utilize cooling centers, and most importantly check in on those around you.


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