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Mishmash of how US heat deaths are counted complicates efforts to keep people safe as Earth warms

August 15, 2023

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Postal worker Eugene Gates Jr. was delivering mail in the suffocating Dallas heat this summer when he collapsed in a homeowner’s yard and was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Carla Gates said she’s sure heat was a factor in her 66-year-old husband’s death, even though she’s still waiting for the autopsy report. When Eugene Gates died on June 20, the temperature was 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36.6 Celsius) and the heat index, which also considers humidity, had soared over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 Celsius).

“I will believe this until the day I die, that it was heat-related,” Carla Gates said.

Even when it seems obvious that extreme heat was a factor, death certificates don’t always reflect the role it played. Experts say a mishmash of ways more than 3,000 counties calculate heat deaths means we don’t really know how many people die in the U.S. each year because of high temperatures in an ever warming world.

That imprecision harms efforts to better protect people from extreme heat because officials who set policies and fund programs can’t get the financial and other support needed to make a difference.

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