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By LAUREN KIRKWOOD
WASHINGTON -- From potential heat waves to increased cases of respiratory illness and outbreaks of infectious disease, Maryland scientists are looking to predict how climate change will affect health in order to help communities across the state prepare.
Looking ahead at the possible impact of global warming will give states and cities the chance to enact plans to protect those especially vulnerable to public health threats, including infants, the elderly and people with allergies or other medical conditions, scientists said.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama noted 12 of the hottest years on record have fallen in the past 15 years, and said if Congress fails to act to prepare the nation for the impact of climate change, he and his Cabinet will.
Maryland is a recipient of some of that action -- it received $250,000 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative, which includes 16 states and two cities, to analyze potential effects of climate change. The funding will be used over four years to study threats in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"What we'll be doing is working with local communities, local health departments and local jurisdictions to apply forecasts and models that look at how climate change might affect us," said Clifford Mitchell, the director of DHMH's Environmental Health Bureau.
State and local agencies will study how aspects of the environment affect public health, such as the link between air quality and respiratory illnesses, as well as heat-related injuries, vector-borne diseases like malaria, and drinking water quality.
The Chesapeake Bay, a geographical feature that makes Maryland more vulnerable to changes in sea level than other parts of the country, is also of particular interest, Mitchell said.
"One of the concerns is, as the temperature changes, how does that affect the ecology of the Bay," he said. "We know that there are naturally occurring biological hazards that we need to be aware of."
However, Mitchell said Maryland's coast is not the only region that merits additional study.
"We're not just looking at the Chesapeake, we're also looking at different areas of the state," he said. "While the Chesapeake as a unique geographical feature might make Maryland, as a coastal state, more susceptible to climate changes, they can also affect inland parts of the state."
Likewise, the CDC's initiative will not be limited to one or two regions of the country, but will span a wide geographic area in order to look at the diverse impacts of climate change on the nation's health, said George Luber, associate director for climate change with the CDC's Climate and Health Program.
"We are working with partners in places as distant as Oregon and Florida and Maine and California," Luber said. "Each one of those states is going through the process of looking at the climate and the outlook and saying, given these changes in rainfall or temperature … what the potential health problems in the future might be."
One of the goals of the project is to identify certain populations at a greater risk of illness, such as young children and the elderly, as well as those who suffer from conditions like asthma or seasonal allergies.
In addition, the research will give communities the opportunity to prepare for forecasted changes in the climate.
In the Pacific Northwest, for example, scientists predict heat waves could cause an increased number of days with temperatures above 100 degrees. The region normally has a relatively cool climate, and its residents often don't have air conditioning in their homes. By looking to the future, communities can prevent health problems by constructing cooling shelters or finding other solutions, Luber said.
"Those events are going to be more of a challenge with a population not used to heat waves," he said, citing the 2003 heat wave in Western Europe that killed 70,000 people. "We want to prevent things like that by getting ahead of these types of severe weather."
By giving state and local agencies the tools to examine the impacts of climate change on health, states and cities can create plans to manage the risks to public health, Luber added.
"As we look at the potential risks, we can develop strategies to help adapt to and respond to that," Mitchell said. "This is really meant to build capacity in the state to respond to and manage health hazards associated with climate change."
Although the Maryland Commission on Climate Change released a Climate Action plan to predict global warming's effect on the state in 2008, Maryland stands to benefit from more study and preparation, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said in a statement last week announcing the funding: “Climate change is happening at an alarming rate and we can no longer ignore the adverse effects it will have on the environment and the health of our citizens.”