Environ Health Perspect. 2020 Sep;128(9):97001. doi: 10.1289/EHP4030. Epub 2020 Sep 2.
BACKGROUND: Extreme heat poses current and future risks to human health. Heat vulnerability indices (HVIs), commonly developed using principal components analysis (PCA), are mapped to identify populations vulnerable to extreme heat. Few studies critically assess implications of analytic choices made when employing this methodology for fine-scale vulnerability mapping.
OBJECTIVE: We investigated sensitivity of HVIs created by applying PCA to input variables and whether training input variables on heat-health data produced HVIs with similar spatial vulnerability patterns for Detroit, Michigan, USA.
METHODS: We acquired 2010 Census tract and block group level data, land cover data, daily ambient apparent temperature, and all-cause mortality during May-September, 2000-2009. We used PCA to construct HVIs using: a) “unsupervised”-PCA applied to variables selected a priori as risk factors for heat-related health outcomes; b) “supervised”-PCA applied only to variables significantly correlated with proportion of all-cause mortality occurring on extreme heat days (i.e., days with 2-d mean apparent temperature above month-specific 95th percentiles).
RESULTS: Unsupervised and supervised HVIs yielded differing spatial vulnerability patterns, depending on selected land cover input variables. Supervised PCA explained 62% of variance in the input variables and was applied on half the variables used in the unsupervised method. Census tract-level supervised HVI values were positively associated with increased proportion of mortality occurring on extreme heat days; supervised PCA could not be applied to block group data. Unsupervised HVI values were not associated with extreme heat mortality for either tracts or block groups.
DISCUSSION: HVIs calculated using PCA are sensitive to input data and scale. Supervised HVIs may provide marginally more specific indicators of heat vulnerability than unsupervised HVIs. PCA-derived HVIs address correlation among vulnerability indicators, although the resulting output requires careful contextual interpretation beyond generating epidemiological research questions. Methods with reliably stable outputs should be leveraged for prioritizing heat interventions. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP4030.