More evidence that Mainers can’t handle the heat

Truly hot days are relatively rare in Maine, thanks to those cool ocean breezes and our situation as the northeastern-most state. It’s easy to forget when we’re whining about the 90-degree heat and yearning for the snowfall that we cursed only a few short months ago.

A man enjoys the warm weather and sun at the Bangor Waterfront earlier this month. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

But when the temperature spikes, we suffer more than our neighbors in the rest of New England, according to new research.

A study published May 10 in the journal Environmental Research tracked hospital emergency department visits and deaths in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island on excessively hot days. Researchers found that both increased significantly. The association was strongest in Maine compared to the other two states and the regional average.

That could mean Mainers are more susceptible to hot weather.

(Some purported residents excepted:)

Maine experiences fewer hot days than the rest of the Northeast, so greater susceptibility here makes intuitive sense, explained Andrew Smith, Maine state toxicologist and a co-author of the study.

“We might be less adapted than folks to the south of us,” he said.

It’s also possible that we’re more susceptible, at least in part, because not many of us get relief from air conditioning, Smith said. The state actually tracks this, and reports that only about half of Maine households had AC in 2016, compared to 86 percent in the rest of the Northeast (in 2009).

Laura Michaud of Dedham loads an air conditioner into her vehicle at Lowe’s in Brewer in July 2013. Kevin Bennett | BDN

However, the goal of the study wasn’t to pit Mainers against other New Englanders to see who copes best with summer weather. I focused on that finding because we journalists instinctually seek out conflict. Also because I was tempted to headline this post, “Mainers, get out of the kitchen. You can’t handle the heat.” Or maybe, “It’s hot enough for ya, study shows.”

The actual point of the study was to document the relationship between heat and public health in our region. Previous studies have made clear that hot weather is associated with an increase in hospital visits and deaths, but that research was largely based on national data. And clearly a hot day in Atlanta is not the same as a hot day in Augusta. Local populations respond to heat differently, so the researchers wanted better information about when and how to warn their communities about scorching temps.

They zeroed in on populations living within 10 miles of National Weather Service stations, and paired May-to-September weather data from each station with health and demographic data from state health departments.

As it turns out, things can get dangerous even before hitting triple-digit temperatures. ED visits and deaths across the three states jumped 7.5 percent on days when the heat index reached 95 degrees, compared with days that maxed out at 75 degrees, the study found. In Maine, ED visits spiked about 10 percent, as did deaths on those scorching days.

(Heat index is “a measure of how hot it really feels when relative humidity is factored in with the actual air temperature, as the National Weather Service explains).

I figured our older population played a role in Maine’s high numbers, since hospital admissions for heat-related illness occur overwhelmingly among the elderly. But when the researchers looked specifically at ED visits, as opposed to inpatient admissions, the patients with heat-related ailments skewed younger, toward middle-aged residents. That suggests younger folks are failing to take precautions, perhaps overheating on the job, and winding up in the ED with acute illness, versus elderly individuals with other health issues who are are worn down by the heat and require a longer hospital stay, Smith said.

A Rockland man wets his brow while suffering from heat exhaustion at the 15th tee at Bangor Municipal Golf Course in 2001. He was treated by paramedics and recovered. BDN FILE PHOTO | KEVIN BENNETT

The study looked at a wide range of diagnoses, not just heat stroke and heat exhaustion. High temperatures can lead to dehydration and exacerbate chronic conditions such as asthma and kidney disease. While the researchers didn’t specifically target the effect of high ozone levels, like Maine recorded on Monday, the study included its effects when they coincided with hot days.

“We knew that heat can be a serious public health concern, but these findings alert us that we need to place a stronger focus on public health on days when the heat index approaches 95 degrees,” Smith said.

More of those days appear to be in our future. Maine typically experiences one to five days each summer that hit that threshold, but a University of Maine study predicts that will jump to 10 to 15 summer days by 2060.

The suns rises, shining through the mist hanging over a field in Knox County. Micky Bedell | BDN

The study prompted the National Weather Service to change its policy on when to issue official heat advisories. This spring, the service’s Northeast Region decided to issue advisories when the heat index is forecast to reach 95 degrees on two or more consecutive days or 100 degrees for any amount of time. The previous threshold was a maximum daily heat index of 100.

It also drove public health officials to develop plans about how to respond to excessive heat, and the Maine CDC will begin issuing health warnings for the public at the lower threshold adopted by the NWS.

The study, “Heat-related morbidity and mortality in New England: Evidence for local policy,” was led by Gregory Wellenius of the Brown University School of Public Health, and co-authored by Andrew Smith and Rebecca Lincoln of the Maine CDC, along with colleagues from the state public health agencies in New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

I updated this post to correct the third state involved in study, which was Rhode Island. 

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.