Study to Look at Extreme Heat’s Impact on Californians’ Health

August 10, 2006

More than 160 deaths blamed on California’s recent heat wave prompted officials to begin a study of the impact of extreme heat and global warming on the health of Californians.

The state Department of Health Services announced it received a $4.5 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track deaths and illnesses related to increased temperatures and global climate change.

Results from the study will be used to establish new policy for combatting global warming and heat-related illnesses within the state and will also be shared with a national databank on the effects of global warming on public health.

The research will also consider how heat-related illnesses are affected by the development boom in some of the state’s hottest regions, including Southern California’s inland regions and Central Valley.

“Unfortunately, the most population growth is occurring in the hottest areas of the state,” said Paul English, an environmental health investigator who will oversee the study. “If we continue to see heat waves and increased temperatures, there will be more illnesses and deaths related to that.”

As many as 164 deaths were blamed on the nearly two-week heat wave in late July, creating what officials described as an “invisible natural disaster.” The death toll was greater than other state disasters, including the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, which caused 63 and 72 deaths, respectively.

“The tragic deaths and illnesses during our most recent heat wave exemplify how high temperatures can pose a serious health threat for Californians,” said Mark Horton, the state’s public health officer.

Many of the deaths occurred in the inland areas, where temperatures soared over 100 degrees. There were far fewer deaths and illnesses in cooler, coastal counties.

Officials are concerned that hospitals and other emergency services in the hotter areas will not be equipped to handle the number of people seeking treatment for heat-related illnesses.

The trend toward larger houses in the state’s hotter regions also has sharply increased the use of power-draining air conditioning systems, according to experts, while sprawling inland development has created more “hot zones” where pavement and concrete prevents cooling.

English said health risks would also continue to increase as more greenhouse gas emissions are released into the environment.

Motor vehicle exhaust is one of the largest sources of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide. Those gases increase global warming by trapping sunlight and heat and increase levels of ground-level ozone. Ozone-related illnesses include respiratory conditions, asthma and heart attacks.

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