Leaving a child in a hot car, even for a few minutes, can be deadly, warns doctor

If children are left in a hot car, even for minutes, symptoms can lead to heatstroke, seizures and death.

Experts suggest there is no safe amount of time you can leave a child in a car.

Leaving a child in a hot car, even for a few minutes, can lead to heatstroke, seizures and even death, says Dr. Chris Sulowski. (CBC)

The car door closes with a thunk, then heat starts to build and a deadly countdown begins.

First comes sweating, then panting, then the heart rate rises and skin becomes flushed. 

If children are left in a hot car, even for minutes, those symptoms can lead to heatstroke and worse, according to Dr. Chris Sulowski, deputy chief at the McMaster Children's Hospital's pediatric emergency department.

"Your body's ability to dissipate heat in the oven-like environment, like a hot car, can be overwhelmed," he explained, adding once a person's internal temperature rises to 41 C it doesn't take long for their life to be in danger. 

"It can very quickly progress to seizures, coma … and death."

Dr. Chris Sulowski said the Paediatric Emergency Department at the McMaster Children’s Hospital sees cases of children suffering from heat exposure every year. (Dr. Chris Sulowski)

A hot vehicle has already claimed the life of a Burlington, Ont. boy this spring. On Wednesday, emergency crews were called to a television station on North Service road by a "hysterical man" who found the toddler without vital signs.

Halton Regional Police believe the boy is three years old. On Thursday they released the results of an autopsy that listed the preliminary cause of death as hyperthermia, "consistent with the child being left in a vehicle."

A toddler has died after being found in a vehicle in Burlington

6 years ago
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Featured VideoEMS and police attempted life-saving measures but were unsuccessful

Unfortunately, Sulowski said, children suffering from heat exposure is something his emergency department sees every year.

This doc locked himself in hot car to prove a point

The threat is so real that last July, on a day where the mercury was edging past 30 C, one of Sulowski's coworkers, Dr. Anthony Crocco, locked himself in a Jeep 4x4 on a sweltering day to show people what a steaming car can do to someone.

The then 44-year-old does triathlons and is healthier than most. In a car where the temperature topped 40 C he lasted all of 15 minutes before bailing and being examined by paramedics who were standing by.

"The good news ... is I can get myself out of that car at any time," Crocco said after the experiment. "I've got water standing by. I'm being watched by paramedics. But for a child strapped into a car, they don't have the ability to modify their environment."

Anthony Crocco sits in a hot car

6 years ago
Duration 0:19
Featured VideoDr. Anthony Crocco sits in a hot car

In 2016, Hamilton paramedics responded to 65 heat-related calls, and 17 of them were kids, including two who needed emergency treatment because they were accidentally locked in hot cars.

Last year they between April and September they received 17 more heat calls, said David Thompson, superintendent of programs and development.

Check the back seat before getting out

Hamilton EMS have a message for parents:

"We want to make sure people put something important in the back seat, house keys, a cellphone, groceries, so they have to check it before they get out," said Thomspon.

He added forgetting kids in cars doesn't only happen at the store, work or church — it can happen at home too.

"Kids can get into the car while playing and not realize what's happening," he said. "Lock the car in your driveway and keep the keys somewhere safe."

An average of 37 people died each year in the United States because they were locked in a hot car, according to the Canada Safety Council, which added no statistics are available for Canadian cases.

Sulowski said there's no minimum amount of time a child can be left in a car without the possibility death or damage will be caused by heat.

He's one of many health care professionals who have started to carry a window-breaking tool whenever he goes out.

"Once you see the effects [you know] if you've got to break the glass, you're going to break the glass."


Dan Taekema


Dan Taekema is CBC’s reporter covering Kingston, Ont. and the surrounding area. He’s worked in newsrooms in Chatham, Windsor, Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa. You can reach him by emailing daniel.taekema@cbc.ca.