For your health, be cool

Danger: Local health officials urge residents to take precautions against the sticky heat.

July 26, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

When the weather is hot, hazy and humid and the sun is searing, Anna would prefer to stand next to the pool, not in it.

There, the 8,000-pound African elephant can take water into her trunk and make cool mud on the ground beneath her to smear over her wrinkly skin.

Anna and other animals at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore weren't the only ones trying to beat the heat yesterday. People across the region also sweltered as a heat wave continued to bake the region.

In Baltimore, the temperature soared to 91 degrees with 57 percent humidity at the Inner Harbor, the National Weather Service reported. The heat index - the combined effect of heat and humidity - reached 100.

It's expected to get hotter today, with the temperature rising to the mid-90s in the city. The heat index could reach as high as 105.

The weather service issued a heat advisory Sunday that will be in effect until 8 o'clock tonight.

Health officials warn that the sweltering weather can be deadly. As of July 20, there have been 11 heat-related deaths in Maryland, according to the state health department - more than in recent years.

Four people died last summer, and no heat-related deaths were recorded in 2003, state health statistics show.

Eight of this summer's heat-related deaths occurred in Baltimore, the most recent on July 18 when a 63-year-old woman in the city died.

The summer began with a deceptively mild May, but temperatures shot up in June and July.

The average temperatures for June and July this year were above average, with 15 days in which temperatures reached 90 degrees or higher.

Governments act

Baltimore health officials urge people without air conditioning to seek shelter at any of the city's senior centers or at four "cooling centers."

The steamy forecast led Baltimore County officials yesterday to activate a plan to open three of its senior centers for four extra hours in the evening at least through tomorrow for residents without air conditioning, said Richard Muth, director of home- land security and emergency preparedness for the county.

The Essex, Lansdowne and Parkville centers will close at 8 p.m. instead of 4 p.m.

Workers who deal with the county's most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, sick and homeless, as well as families with young children, were already in the process of checking on them and passing along advice on how to deal with the heat, officials said.

Residents are encouraged to limit strenuous activities, stay indoors, wear lightweight, light-colored clothing, drink plenty of fluids - even when not thirsty, and to eat small meals and eat more often.

"We want to jump in early and call people and remind people to check on their neighbors," Muth said. "A lot of times that's all it takes."

Yesterday, the county had seen no spike in heat-related emergency calls, he said. Officials with hospitals in Baltimore County reported no deaths and said heat-related injuries did not appear to be a problem.

In Carroll County, the Bureau on Aging is running public service announcements on area radio stations, encouraging elderly residents to spend their days at one of the county's five senior centers, all of which are air-conditioned.

The bureau has included tips on keeping cool in its newsletter and is accepting used, functional fans or air conditioners.

One staff member had an extra window air conditioner and installed it in a seniors home last week.

"We are taking care of seniors' problems with the heat as soon as they arise," said Karen Lewns, the bureau's fiscal supervisor. "We're checking everywhere we can for fans and air conditioners."

The Seniors Keep in Touch program calls about 50 elderly residents, many of whom are shut-ins, every day to make sure they are safe and healthy.

"If we know someone is totally at risk, we would go out to them," said Debbie Frame, senior information and assistance co-ordinator. "We are going out to all the senior centers to tell everyone how to keep cool. We are staying on top of this."

Larry L. Leitch, Carroll's health officer, said the county has not seen an increase in heat-related illness, but he added, "We have at least another month to go."

Cold front on the way

Relief might be in sight, however. A cold front will move through the region Thursday, bringing showers and thunderstorms into the area, said Sarah Allen, a meteorologist for the weather service.

At the zoo, animals have relatively simple ways of beating the heat - mainly lying down most of the day in shaded areas, which isn't always entertaining for zoo guests.

"They've all got those thick coats," said Peggie Ballard, a 39-year-old visiting from Connecticut, who sought refuge under some trees. "The goats, you know, they've got to be suffering, even though God made them that way."

Zoo officials said the animals - from elephants to zebras to polar bears - are relatively acclimated to the area's weather.

For example, Alaska the polar bear came to the zoo from a Mexican circus, while Magnet, a 925-pound polar bear, doesn't need arctic conditions, either - he snacks on giant blocks of ice containing fish and regularly dips into his warm water pool for a swim.

Standing in the shade, Anna sways back and forth as her ears flap. She knows something is up, sidling up to the iron gates and hanging her trunk over the top bar.

Soon she will get hosed down, obeying verbal commands from trainers to spin around so different parts of her body can be reached, and blow bubbles in the pool. Just like her visitors, elephant manager Mike McClure says, Anna has to adjust to the heat.

"People assume they're African elephants, they should be able to handle the heat," McClure said. "It's all about what you get used to. Just like people."

Sun staff writers Lisa Goldberg, Mary Gale Hare, Danny Jacobs and William Wan contributed to this article.

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