Could a 'cold wave' warning system save lives?

Cold weather can be harsh on the lungs and heart, with certain temperatures seeing an increase in hospitalizations and death

Monika Warzecha 3 minute read November 26, 2020
Cold wave

A team of researchers in Quebec looked into data showing excess hospitalizations and deaths during cold snaps. Getty

When the weather sizzles, Canadians are fairly accustomed to getting heat wave alerts: for the last decade, many regions plan for extreme heat with cooling centres and health officials warn the public about staying outside too long and keeping hydrated. Researchers in Quebec now think that a similar system for extremely cold weather could be just as valuable, especially for those suffering from chronic diseases.

The Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) and the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) developed such a system. Their work on creating a cold-health watch and warning model, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, is the first of its kind, according to a news release. The system is similar to the heat wave watch system the team developed in 2010.

Very cold weather can be hard on both the lungs and heart. The Cleveland Clinic explains that cold can make your heart beat faster as your body tries to stay warm, which in turn may make your blood pressure go up. The agency also says that for people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chilly weather can trigger trouble breathing, coughing, wheezing and spasms that feel similar to an asthma attack.

“Data provided by the INSPQ indicates an increase in hospitalizations and mortality in cold weather,” says Fateh Chebana, a professor with the INRS and the team lead. “Excessive mortality or hospitalizations caused by cold waves are not as well-known as for heat waves, even though their impact is high during the winter.”

The model would use Environment Canada forecasts and would take into consideration not just the temperature, but the region as well. The system is expected to be taken up by the Système de surveillance et de prévention des impacts sanitaires des événements météorologiques extrêmes (SUPREME) in Quebec.

Based on the data, the researchers identified temperature thresholds for a two-day cold wave related to excess mortality. They varied between -15°C and -23°C during the day, and between -20°C and -29°C at night, depending on the region. For excess hospitalizations, the data pointed to temperatures between -13°C and -23°C during the day, and between -17°C and -30°C at night.

Further adjustments to the model may take into consideration the time of year. “A temperature of -15°C in December will not have the same effect on health as in February because the body has not yet adapted,” says Chebana. It may also one day see adjustments that look specifically at high-risk groups including the elderly and those with respiratory issues.

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