Ontario coroner investigating 3 possible heat-related deaths

Ontario's chief coroner has confirmed that his office is investigating three deaths as potentially tied to the recent extreme heat that has gripped much of the province.

Could take several months to confirm cause of death, chief coroner says

It can be "very challenging" to determine just how much of a role extreme heat plays in cases of death, according to Ontario's chief coroner. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

Ontario's chief coroner has confirmed that his office is investigating three deaths as potentially tied to the recent extreme heat that has gripped much of the province.

The deaths were first reported to the coroner's office within the past four days, Dr. Dirk Huyer told reporters during a teleconference Tuesday afternoon.

Huyer could not confirm where the deaths occurred and said it may take "a number of weeks — but more typically a number of months — until all the testing is done," in order to reach a definitive conclusion about the cause of death.

The announcement comes as the Quebec government warns that up to 70 people may have died across that province in connection with the extreme and persistent heat, which began days before Canada Day.

Defining 'heat-related' deaths

Asked to explain the discrepancy between the number of deaths recorded in Ontario compared to Quebec, Huyer says it likely reflects a different understanding of what qualifies as a heat-related death.

Many of the deaths reported in Quebec may be cases of people who suffered from chronic diseases — such as cancer, lung disease or a heart condition — made worse by the extreme heat, Huyer said.

In contrast — and in accordance with provincial laws — the Ontario coroner's office is not notified of deaths that are deemed to be "natural."

"What we would investigate would be accidental deaths that are directly associated with heat, as opposed to [deaths resulting from] a natural disease process," Huyer said.

"The ones that we do investigate would be deaths that would be more typically accidental, and so they would be situations of heat stroke, when somebody dies from the direct effects of heat."

These cases include, for example, the three-year-old boy who was found dead in Burlington, Ont., in May, after apparently being left in an overheated car.

Lengthy process

Huyer says it can take months for his office to determine the cause of death, as coroners perform autopsies before reaching their conclusion. 

"We want to get the highest quality and the best answers possible for the family members, the community, for public health efforts as well as many other reasons," he said.

Although Environment Canada lifted its extreme heat alerts in several cities across Ontario, temperatures are again expected to rise and remain in place for several days across large parts of the province.