The Hidden Costs of Power Blackouts

The massive electricity outage that occurred in New York state and Canada in 2003 caused far more deaths than the official estimate of 6 as initially thought at the time. A new piece of research printed in the medical journal ‘Epidemiology’ attributes almost one hundred deaths to factors more or less directly linked to the sudden loss of power for nearly two days, the 14th and 15th of August.

The official deaths were mostly attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty generator use, while the unofficial deaths arose from pre-existing disease conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory difficulties.

Power Loss Kills People?

The new study makes clear that extended loss of power kills people. It has a severe impact on health and not just because of accidents, like carbon monoxide poisoning. This is the first extensive study of deaths during power outages to shine a light on. The data came from numerous diverse sources such as the New York City weather conditions, air quality and emissions levels and of course the recorded causes of death during the dark period under study.

The blackout in question lasted for nearly four days in some parts of the northeastern states and Canada. Power was restored to most parts of the City within 24 hours but some isolated areas were deprived for longer. The study’s authors found a twenty-eight percent blip in fatalities at the time of the power outage. Twelve were recorded as accidental, thirty-eight due to heart failure, three from breathing problems and the remaining thirty-seven died from miscellaneous other conditions.

Electricity Blackout as a Catalyst

The electricity blackout was just the catalyst for many other factors that lead to growing health problems. People living in high-rise apartments were deprived of water because the pumps are electric. As are the elevators and many people had to be rescued from these, having suffered in the cages for long periods of time. Others were trapped in the frightening black holes of the subway system with rampant uncertainty and stress. Remember to the post 9/11 psycho trauma is a bottomless source of fear and tension.

Stress Exacerbations?

This kind of stress is the ideal precondition for heart attacks and for exacerbating asthma. The air in New York took a concentrated turn for the worse during the blackout because the traffic stopped moving but nobody turned off their engines. Hospital admissions for people with breathing problems spiked during the blackout. Unfortunately the air quality monitoring equipment is also electrically powered but when power was switched back on the measurements of toxic particles recorded another upward blip. Power blackouts have a disproportionate adverse effect on two groups of people.

The Chronically Ill

Firstly those who are already chronically ill and who cannot easily manage their conditions and secondly the less well off, who had services restored later and did not have the resources to escape the blackout. Economic inequality forces people to rely on local food stores and pharmacies, most of which simply closed. Ambulances could not transport the sick quickly enough, home equipment was not an option and if you were low on your prescription medication you were in definite trouble.

[box type=”note”]Clearly the lesson of this study is that there is a lot more to power blackouts than official figures would have us believe. The solution would be to prevent all future blackouts but that isn’t going to happen real soon.[/box]

Claire Al-Aufi

Claire Al-Aufi is a contributing author for Hive Health Media who provides updates on health and fitness news.

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