- Associated Press - Friday, August 14, 2015

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Researchers in Rhode Island are working with health departments in other states to figure out if the number of emergency room visits and heat-related deaths will increase in New England if temperatures rise due to climate change.

Based on their work so far, they think the numbers will go up.

The researchers are discussing their work with the Taunton, Massachusetts, office of the National Weather Service, which issues heat advisories and warnings for much of southern New England.

Glenn Field, the office’s warning coordination meteorologist, said the office will consider changing the threshold for its advisories based on the study’s results, but staff there worry whether doing so could cause them to send out so many advisories that they’re ignored by the public.

“That could lead to advisory fatigue, but we’re certainly willing to listen,” he said.

Brown University and the Rhode Island Department of Health recently collaborated on a study that found that as temperatures rise even moderately, the number of heat-related emergency room visits and deaths increase among people of all ages. It projected that those rates would be substantially higher if temperatures increase as projected, due to climate change.

Many previous studies looked at the impact of extreme heat on health, but not at the effects of more moderate, future increases, according to the authors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided a grant for the study.

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said it gives him another piece of evidence in his fight to spur action to address climate change. Ailis Clyne, a medical director at the Rhode Island Department of Health, said the work will help guide policies in response to the public health impacts of climate change.

Brown University associate professor Gregory Wellenius, the study’s senior author, said health departments in New Hampshire and Maine were also looking at the relationship between heat and health so he reached out to them to compare results, which he expects to be similar across New England.

“The focus of our work, our regional collaboration, is to help the National Weather Service and Departments of Health in these states best protect the public from the dangers of heat,” he said. “To do that, we’re trying to provide the evidence the National Weather Service needs to issue heat advisories and heat warnings in the most appropriate manner possible.”

The service’s Taunton office issues a heat advisory when the forecast calls for the heat index to reach 100 to 104 degrees within 24 to 36 hours, and issues a heat warning when it will reach 105 degrees or above, Field said. He said offices in other regions have different criteria.

The office has issued one heat advisory so far this summer, on July 19, and heat warnings are very rare, Field said. He said they’re planning to invite the researchers to a meeting with other New England meteorologists in Maine in September.

“Lowering the threshold is a possibility,” Field said. “We’re not just discounting it. But it would be a very involved process.”

Wellenius said he hopes the findings for the region can be published within a year.

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