Biometeorology undergoes renaissance in Philadelphia

Concern about effect of global warming on mortality fuels change

July 07, 2002|By Anthony R. Wood | Anthony R. Wood,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELHIA - Joseph Hollander's Climatron looked like a contraption from a bad horror movie. And to the suffering subjects he locked inside in the early 1960s, it probably felt like one.

The University of Pennsylvania physician was an arthritis expert of international renown. But he also was a proponent of an ancient, oddball science called biometeorology, which held that weather was a prime determinant of health.

In the most ambitious effort ever to prove it, he built an airtight, two-room chamber in the hospital and sent patients into it for two weeks at a stretch. Setting dials as big as dinner plates, he made the humidity, temperature and barometric pressure soar and drop, inflicting varying degrees of pain on the volunteers - and, to his satisfaction at least, affirming his thesis.

When he presented his findings 40 years ago in June, the medical world was abuzz, but only briefly. Climatron was dismantled. Hollander retired. And his legacy was left to legions of elderly aunts who consult their aching knees to predict rain.

Hollander, not to mention Aunt Martha, would love what's happening now: Biometeorology is back. While there is no lack of nonbelievers to dismiss most of it as hot air, it is attracting adherents in some surprisingly serious circles worldwide.

The renaissance has been inspired in part by global warming and concerns about its potential effect on human mortality. Would a warmer Earth be kinder to the body or deadlier?

No one knows, yet. But biometeorology's disciples are confident enough of other weather-health connections to try to make use of them.

Hospital alert system

Britain's national meteorological office has instituted a hospital-alert system using weather forecasts to warn of influxes of patients with particular maladies. Falling temperatures, for instance, supposedly trigger more heart attacks and respiratory infections.

During the Christmas holidays last year, according to the physician who runs the program, one hospital that heeded the forecast saved $1 million on staffing and other costs when the usual wave of respiratory ailments never materialized.

Germany's weather service contributes to daily public advisories for 50 afflictions thought to be affected by atmospheric activity, from allergies to strokes and psychoses. High humidity in the Schwarzwald? Beware of migraines.

"The Europeans are ahead of us," said Robert Davis, chairman of the American Meteorological Society's biometeorology committee, which first convened in the 1960s. Biometeorology may be less daring in America, but it is nonetheless alive and reasonably well - appropriately, in the cradle of Climatron.

Asthma warnings

This fall in Philadelphia, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will begin testing the nation's first asthma-warning system based on weather forecasts. The alerts will be issued 48 hours in advance.

Asthma attacks soar in late September. Some studies link them to arriving cold fronts, whose air-pressure and temperature changes might stress the body. One hypothesis holds that attacks are set off by indoor heating systems kicking in.

With summer just under way, the Philadelphia area also is the testing ground for a user-friendly heat-discomfort index, a collaboration of the National Weather Service and the University of Delaware. The index - scaled 1 to 10, from delightful to brutal - is computed from such factors as temperature and the air's sogginess.

There are other signs of biometeorology's resurgence in the United States. The International Society of Biometeorology, a 46-year-old Australia-based group, will hold its 16th International Congress in the heartland, Kansas City, Mo., this fall. More than 200 researchers have asked to present papers.

Board official Laurence Kalkstein, a University of Delaware climatologist, has been taken aback by the response. "There is no doubt that there is a growing awareness about biometeorology," he said. "It's definitely in a waxing situation."

Through much of human history, biometeorology was in a "waxing situation."

In 2650 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Hwang Ti - allegedly the first to observe that the heart is a pump - stated that hot weather strengthened the heart, while cold weather weakened the lungs. More than two millennia later, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, advised that doctors who wanted to know their patients had better know weather.

The notion was thriving even two millennia after that. The 18th-century physician and patriot Benjamin Rush prepared a report on the effects of weather on disease in Pennsylvania.

"Great and sudden changes may be considered the principle causes of the diseases of this state," he said. In summer, he warned, Pennsylvanians should watch out for colic, diarrhea and cholera.

With the advent of the microscope and advances in germ theory in the mid-19th century, the discipline faded into the background of medical research.

Some scientists wish it had stayed there.

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