December 17, 2008

‘Death Map’ Shows Heat Is A Major Hazard To Americans

According to a "death map" published on Tuesday, heat is more likely to kill an American than an earthquake, and thunderstorms are more deadly than hurricanes.

The study compiled which natural disasters kill Americans county-by-county in an effort to help emergency preparedness officials plan better.

The team at the University of South Carolina found that heat and drought caused 19.6 percent of total deaths from natural hazards, with summer thunderstorms causing 18.8 percent and winter weather causing 18.1 percent.

The study was published in BioMed Central's International Journal of Health Geographics.

Earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes combined were responsible for fewer than 5 percent of all hazard deaths.

The research team hoped to dispel some myths about what the biggest threats to life and limb are.

"According to our results, the answer is heat," Susan Cutter and Kevin Borden of the University of South Carolina wrote in their report, which gathered data from 1970 to 2004.

"I think what most people would think, if you say what is the major cause of death and destruction, they would say hurricanes and earthquakes and flooding," Cutter said. "They wouldn't say heat."

The researchers wrote: "What is noteworthy here is that over time, highly destructive, highly publicized, often-catastrophic singular events such as hurricanes and earthquakes are responsible for relatively few deaths when compared to the more frequent, less catastrophic such as heat waves and severe weather."

Cutter said the most dangerous places to live are much of the South, because of the heat risk, the hurricane coasts and the Great Plains states with their severe weather. She also warned that the south central United States is also a dangerous area, with floods and tornadoes.

The study found, however, that California is relatively safe.

"It illustrates the impact of better building codes in seismically prone areas because the fatalities in earthquakes have gone down from 1900 because things don't collapse on people any more," Cutter said.

Cutter said it shows that simple improvements in building codes in high-wind environments like hurricane coasts, and the effectiveness of evacuation in advance of hurricanes, has reduced the mortality from hurricanes and tropical storms.

"So there are some things we are pretty good at in getting people out of harm's way and reducing fatalities."

The researchers stated that there was currently no national database on such deaths and this was a first attempt at getting one together.


On The Net:

University of South Carolina

International Journal of Health Geographics