10 Md. deaths blamed on heat

June-July fatalities included 7 in city

most victims elderly

9 more cases investigated

Health commissioner of Baltimore alarmed that he was not told

July 24, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The scorching heat that has wilted Maryland this summer has also caused as many as 19 deaths, making the hot weather far more lethal than previously revealed.

Baltimore's top health officer, who was not informed of the fatalities even though most occurred in the city, said the lack of notice prevented him from alerting residents to a potentially deadly health hazard.

"It's important from a public health standpoint to have this information," said City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who had he had no idea anyone had died until a reporter called him yesterday.

Beilenson said had he known earlier about fatalities, an analysis might have found ways to prevent some of them. He also said he would have issued "a full-scale alert" to warn residents.

Yesterday's disclosures by the state were the first indication that the summer's 90-plus temperatures and high humidity have been more than an annoyance.

Throughout June and July, Baltimore's medical examiner's office repeatedly said that no deaths had been caused by the hot weather.

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said yesterday that seven of 10 confirmed heat-related deaths occurred in Baltimore.

Nine other fatalities in the state are believed to be heat-related but are listed as "pending" until final autopsy results are returned.

Health officials routinely issue heat-related warnings when temperatures reach dangerous levels.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has issued five "Code Red" health advisories this summer -- indicating the most dangerous air quality.

Temperatures recorded at Baltimore-Washington International Airport have soared above 90 degrees on 13 of the past 23 days this month, including eight straight days July 3-10, and four consecutive days July 16-19.

Yesterday's high at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was 96, and National Weather Service forecaster Calvin Meadows predicted high temperatures between 95 and 100 this weekend.

"Just normal summertime routine," he said.

Baltimore fire officials have reported an increased number of ambulance calls over the past several weeks.

Dr. David Nicolaou, an emergency room physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said his staff has treated many elderly people who are in houses without air conditioners and who take medication that prevents them from perspiring.

The doctor also said that many young people are over-exerting themselves in the heat.

"We are seeing quite a large number of healthy people with heat exhaustion," he said. "If people wait for thirst to drink, they are going to be behind the eight ball."

At Carroll County General Hospital, spokeswoman Daphine Swancutt said that more than 100 people have been treated for heat-related symptoms since June 7 -- many complaining of headaches, nausea and dehydration.

But until yesterday, the state medical examiner's office was publicly saying that nobody had died because of the oppressive weather.

Dr. John E. Smialek, the chief medical examiner, was out of the office yesterday and could not be reached. Beilenson said he called at 4 p.m. and was told that not one medical examiner was in. "That's incomprehensible," he said.

The difficulty in getting information extended even to top state officials. Tori Leonard, a spokeswoman for the state health secretary, said Smialek's office has "clamped down on information, even to us."

Beilenson said, however, that Smialek has notified him of other problems, including telling him a year ago when many people were dying from a new type of pure, snortable heroin. As a result, Beilenson issued a series of public warnings.

The heat-related death numbers released yesterday cover the period from June 7 through July 10.

On July 6, Deputy State Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler told The Sun that his office is "anticipating deaths. We are hoping they will be very few."

Several people had already died by that time, but Leonard said yesterday that when Fowler spoke, autopsy results had not been completed on the victims, many of whom died over the July 4 weekend, when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees.

"I don't think it was known at that date that heat was a contributing factor," the spokeswoman said.

Benjamin said that of the 10 confirmed heat-related deaths, seven were from Baltimore and one each was from Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

Information was not available on the nine other pending cases.

The 10 victims ranged in age from 2 to 90. The 2-year-old, Stacy Stinger, died June 7 in Gaithersburg when he was left strapped in a car seat inside a van. The temperature that day reached 97 degrees; the toddler's body temperature rose to 108 degrees.

Six of the victims were elderly and suffered heart attacks or strokes.

"I think the pattern is age and the bulk of these folks have cardiovascular disease," Benjamin said. "That means their hearts had to work a lot harder in this heat."

Three other deaths were of young to middle-age people, Benjamin said, with over-exertion being blamed.

Benjamin said local cities and counties should be informed of deaths, and, had he known there were problems, "certainly, we would have given the information out."

He said he will talk with Smialek on Monday to "make sure we have a more pro-active way that local jurisdictions are involved."

Sun staff writers Sheridan Lyons and Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/24/99

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