Human death toll from heat was 6 times higher than what the state reported, LA Times investigation finds

California’s hottest August on record was in 2020. Then over Labor Day weekend, LA County hit its own record with 121 degrees Fahrenheit in Woodland Hills. Climate change means more extreme heat will be likely. And extreme heat is the deadliest climate catastrophe, killing more people than hurricanes, floods, or fires. A big LA Times investigation found that California is unprepared to deal with this, and it severely undercounts how many people die from extreme heat.

When people are exposed to extreme heat, they might experience muscle cramps and then progress into heat exhaustion, which means the body goes into overdrive to keep cool, explains Anna Phillips, environmental policy reporter at the LA Times. 

“You’re sweating profusely, you might become dizzy, you might become confused or feel faint. And that is the point at which your body is starting to overheat,” she says. “From there, if things become incredibly serious, then you progress into heatstroke, and that is typically when your body’s core temperature is over 104 degrees. … You need to be moved to a place or put into a position where you can be cooled down as quickly as possible.” 

Phillips says her LA Times team found that the death toll from heat was about six times higher than what the state reported. “Our analysis estimated that heat caused about 3900 deaths over a 10-year period.”

She adds that the people suffering most live in Southern California and the Central Valley, like Riverside and Bakersfield.