The Salvation Army has set up heat-relief stations around the Valley, providing water and sometimes sunscreen for people out and about in the high temperatures. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Two people have already died from Arizona’s heat this year, Maricopa County public-health officials confirmed on Thursday. Twelve more deaths in the county are under investigation.
One of the deaths found to have been caused by heat occurred in March when temperatures still hovered around 80 degrees, according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. The other occurred in early April.
“I wish this was unusual,” said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, a medical director at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. “Last year was the highest number of heat-related deaths that we’ve had ever, since we started counting the numbers.”
Both victims were female and died outdoors. One was in her 20s, the other in her 70s.
A majority of the deaths still under investigation happened in the past three weeks. Some of those could be ruled out as heat-caused, Sunenshine said.
On Monday and Tuesday, the Weather Service recorded temperatures over 105 degrees. A heat warning from the National Weather Service ended Wednesday.
Heat-associated deaths are tracked by the county’s health department in a weekly report during the “heat-surveillance season,” which generallystarts in May and ends in October.
In 2016, Maricopa County recorded no heat-associated deaths in March or April, though there were three confirmed deaths in May of that year. There were 130 confirmed heat-associated deaths in total last year, more than twice as many as in 2014. Two people died due to the heat in March and April of 2015.
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Metro Phoenix can expect to see “a lengthening of the hot season” based on projections, said Sharon Harlan, a senior sustainability fellow with Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability.
“There is this very real prospect of increases in heat death and hospitalizations and emergency-room visits,” she said.
Harlan has studied environmental inequalities for more than a decade and was one of the authors of a study published last year examining the health impacts of heat.
High temperatures can kill inexperienced hikers, those without working air conditioners and homeless people who live outdoors, she said. Homeless people accounted for 33 percent of all heat-associated deaths the county tracked last year.
Sunenshine said it’s important for people to drink enough water, take breaks in the shade, avoid outdoor activity and check on elderly neighbors, to make sure their air conditioners are functioning properly.
The county will continue to track deaths as the season continues.
“We know that overall it’s getting hotter,” she said.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow the azcentral.com and Arizona Republic environmental reporting team at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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