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 overcrowded and 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.