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The 'Polar Vortex' Has Already Left More than 20 Dead

Homeless and poor people most at risk.
 
 
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The icy winds and plunging temperatures across the nation this week have already claimed at least 21 lives, the  Associated Press reported on Tuesday night. The so-called “ polar vortex” comes on the heels of a recent snowstorm that killed  16 people last week, making this winter a particularly deadly one already.

Extreme cold is a serious public health risk, and even just one day of unusually low temperatures is  associated with a spike in deaths. According to a  2007 study on the issue, cold weather kills more people than leukemia, homicide, and liver disease. It’s especially dangerous among people living in poverty, like  homeless individuals and low-income families who may lack access to well-heated homes.

And this week’s record-breaking low temperatures are worse than many health officials have seen for decades. According to the  National Weather Service, the cold is so severe in places like North Dakota and Minnesota that it can freeze human flesh in just five minutes.

Since Sunday, at least  five people have died after collapsing while  shoveling snow. Doing physical labor in extremely cold temperatures is  dangerous because when your body sweats, your clothes are less likely to be able to effectively insulate heat. Several other people have died in car crashes on icy roads, and some victims were identified as homeless people who froze to death. Emergency rooms have reported a rush of people who need treatment for hypothermia, while homeless shelters across the country are  overcrowdedand struggling to find room for all the people seeking refuge from the cold.

Public health officials are warning that  low temperatures also increase the risk of  carbon monoxide poisoning, as Americans rely on space heaters, fireplaces, and wood stoves — which all emit the potentially deadly fumes. There’s always a rise in these deaths after a cold front. For instance, in the aftermath of 2012′s Hurricane Sandy that left many New Yorkers without power for weeks, the number of people dying from carbon monoxide was more than 10 times higher than average.

According to Weather Bell Analytics, an estimated  190 million Americans have felt some effects from the polar vortex so far, as some parts of the country recorded temperatures colder than Antarctica. The polar winds are expected to recede by the end of this week.

 

Tara Culp-Ressler is the Health Editor for ThinkProgress. Before joining the ThinkProgress team, Tara deepened her interest in progressive politics from a faith-based perspective at several religious nonprofits, including Faith in Public Life, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and Interfaith Voices.

 
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