British Columbia

What you need to know about storing perishables during a heat wave

The record heat in British Columbia could cause food and prescription medication to spoil, scientists say, potentially exacerbating the heat wave’s deadly effects.

It's not just food — medication could also be at risk of spoiling during high temperatures

Putting perishable food in the fridge is recommended during a heat wave, but be wary of overcrowding, says UBC professor Siyun Wang. (Candyce Sellars/CBC)

Extreme temperatures like those of British Columbia's recent record-breaking heat wave pose an added threat in their effect on perishables like food and medicine, scientists warn.

The heat can cause food and prescription medication to spoil, potentially exacerbating the heat wave's deadly effects, they say.

That's especially concerning for vulnerable populations, like those requiring essential medication or those experiencing homelessness, who have been one of the biggest concerns for authorities during the extreme weather.

Almost 500 sudden deaths were reported in the Lower Mainland last week, a majority of which were the result of the long-lasting heat wave, according to the RCMP.

Jamie Wigston, vice-president of the B.C. Pharmacy Association, says he imagines that many pharmacies have received calls about drugs getting spoiled during the heat.

Insulin, EpiPens, and naloxone kits are all required to be stored between 15 C and 25 C.

However, during a heat wave, when temperatures have exceeded 30 C regularly, maintaining a regular room temperature can be a tough proposition.

How to tell if your medication is contaminated

Wigston says there are some tell-tale signs to look out for to see if your medication has spoiled during the heat:

  • Make sure liquid medications (like insulin or EpiPens) are not discoloured and have nothing floating in the liquid.
  • Feel your pills or capsules to see if they are crumbling, softened, or starting to stick together.
  • If you're concerned about transporting your meds from the pharmacy in the heat, ask the pharmacist for an ice pack or bring a lunch container with ice in it.

Replacing spoiled meds often comes down to the individual pharmacy and your individual insurance regarding refills, Wigston says.

But he says naloxone kits, which can reverse overdoses, are free of charge for all B.C. residents from pharmacies and people shouldn't hesitate to get a replacement.

Life-saving medication should also not be stored in hot cars or be exposed to direct sunlight, Wigston said.

Authorities have found that liquid medication like insulin, naloxone, and EpiPens are less effective when stored above recommended temperatures, and may interfere with the drugs' function.

"If you're concerned at all, just call the pharmacy where you get your medication and talk with your pharmacist," Wigston said.

How to keep perishable food during a heat wave

Fresh food is particularly susceptible to spoil in warmer weather, says Siyun Wang, a food scientist at the University of B.C.

"The top thing to keep in mind is these microorganisms, bacteria, that can spoil our foods, or in worse cases, make people sick — they do much better in high temperatures," Wang said. 

Wang has some recommendations for how to keep your food safe after bringing it back from the grocery store:

  • Try to put anything perishable in the fridge, but make sure not to overcrowd it.
  • Try to keep your fridge at a temperature of around 4 C — if the temperature gets higher, microbes might start growing within the fridge.
  • Use freezer bags and insulated packaging to bring back perishable foods from the grocery store.
  • When transporting foods like meat and seafood, keep them at the bottom of the bag so any juices don't contaminate the rest of the food.

If you experience a power outage, your fridge and freezer doors should be opened as seldom as possible so as to preserve the cool temperatures inside, Wang says.

"If we have a freezer that's filled with frozen food products, these foods can remain frozen for up to two days if you don't open the freezer," she said. 

"The important thing, really, is to minimize opening your fridges and freezers as much as possible to ensure that the temperature is low enough."

Shelf-stable foods, such as jars of sauce, should be kept out of direct sunlight and in pantries, according to Wang.

"The important thing is that ideally the temperature inside the food pantry should not go above 21 C," said Wang. 

"If we go to our pantry to measure the temperature there, it's very likely that it goes higher than that. [...] But the bottom line is, having a food pantry is better than leaving foods under direct sunlight."

The same is true for alcohol and wine, according to Wang, which should be kept in dark places within room temperature range.

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