By Nicole Chavez, CNN
(CNN) — There are hundreds of heat-related deaths in New York City each summer but the rate at which Black people die is twice as high compared to other racial and ethnic groups, the city’s health department says.
As millions of people in over a dozen states are under some of type of heat alert and cities continue setting high temperature records, health officials in New York City published a report Thursday examining the deadly impact of heat in recent decades. Heat is the No. 1 cause of weather-related deaths in the United States.
Data of heath-related deaths in New York City from 2011-2021 shows there was an annual average of 360 deaths caused by high temperatures exacerbating health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
An estimated 10 additional deaths each year were directly linked to heat exhaustion and hyperthermia, with the highest rate of deaths among Black New Yorkers. The age-adjusted death rate among Black people was 2.2 deaths per million from 2011-2020, the report says. It was 0.9 deaths per million for White people and for Hispanic people, and 0.4 deaths per million for Asian and Pacific Islander New Yorkers, the report says.
Those types of deaths, known as heat-stress deaths, were higher in neighborhoods with more residents living below the federal poverty line compared with wealthier neighborhoods. About two thirds of heat stress-deaths occurred among men, the report says.
Health officials said many of the deaths directly caused by heat occurred at home and a significant number did not have an air conditioner or one was either not working or not in use.
While the New York City health department did not disclose demographic data about the number of deaths in which heat worsens an existing health condition, it said Black New Yorkers are disproportionally impacted and is the reflection of the impacts of structural racism.
Timon McPhearson, director of the Urban Systems Lab at The New School who studies the disproportionate impact that heat has on Black and brown neighborhoods, said generally cities have been built and designed in the 20th century in a way that traps heat, making them much hotter than surrounding areas and much hotter in poorer communities and communities of color.
“Excess deaths due to high heat exposure is a fact of life for US cities, and heat waves kill more people than all other natural disasters combined,” McPhearson said.
But McPhearson noted there are a number of factors that put Black New Yorkers at a disadvantage when it comes to heat exposure.
Many live in neighborhoods with less tree canopy cover and fewer parks, making those areas hotter because they do not have the cooling impact of trees, and they often live in lower quality housing, which can mean less insulation to help block heat from coming indoors. Those and other factors exist because of decades of disinvestment in Black and brown neighborhoods, he said.
“As New York gets even hotter in the near future with climate change we have an even greater challenge to counter the decades of racist policies that impact Black New Yorkers to protect them from heat and other climate hazard exposure,” McPhearson said.
The report’s findings come after environmental justice advocates demanded a more accurate count of the heat mortality rate for years. Eddie Bautista, executive director of the nonprofit NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, said the city had underestimated the number of annual heat-related deaths because they were not counting those caused by illnesses that may have been exacerbated by extreme heat or were only counting deaths that took place during heat waves.
“It was particularly concerning because most of the urban heat islands in New York City, the places that have suffered the most from extreme heat, are communities of color,” said Bautista, who applauded the city for issuing a report that aligns with what advocates and scholars have previously seen.
“Now, the city needs to significantly expand its extreme heat planning, it needs to expand its initiatives to make sure the vulnerability to extreme heat is reduced,” he added.
Michael Lanza, deputy press secretary at the NYC Health Department, said city officials have provided “substantial funding” for air conditioning for low-income seniors, invested in painting cool roofs, tree planting, and created cool outdoor spaces where people can seek relief from the heat. Eligible New Yorkers can also obtain free air conditioners, including installation, through the New York State Home Energy Assistance Program, Lanza added.
Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said it is critical for New Yorkers to stay cool and urged them to use air conditioning, visit a cooling center and check in on family, friends and neighbors to make sure they have a plan to avoid the high temperatures.
“As we continue our recovery from COVID-19, we must remain committed to addressing the health effects of a changing climate and warming planet, the impact of which is not borne equally,” Vasan said in a statement.
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