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Getting the cold, hard facts

Toronto, February 17, 2015

By Leslie Shepherd

Dr. Stephen Hwang approaches Seaton House
Dr. Stephen Hwang approaches Seaton House, Canada’s largest shelter for men, where he conducts a half-day a week clinic. (Photo by Michelle Gibson)

When should the City of Toronto declare an extreme cold weather alert, triggering the opening of warming centres for vulnerable and homeless people?

Good question.

The city’s Medical Officer of Health issues an alert when Environment Canada forecasts that overnight temperatures will reach -15 Celsius or colder. But Toronto Public Health, seeking more evidence about when to make those calls, has turned to the Centre for Research on Inner City Health.

Dr. Stephen Hwang, a leading expert on the health risks of homeless people, is leading a research project to determine the extent of cold and hot weather related injuries, such as frostbite, hypothermia and sunburn, and deaths among homeless people. He’ll then look to see whether there is a correlation to the temperature, the wind chill factor and the number of consecutive days of very cold (or hot) weather.

  Number of extreme cold weather alerts in Toronto
2012-139
2011-127
2010-1110
2009-107
2008-0927

“There’s currently very little scientific evidence on which to base the decision,” said Dr. Hwang, who estimates the research will take another six months.

Cold weather alerts have been in the news this winter after two men presumed to be homeless died in one week in January, sparking calls for the city to do more to prevent such deaths, such as open more shelter beds. Dr. Hwang said one part of the solution might be more street outreach to the small percentage of homeless people who sleep outside.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.