Researcher Warns: Soccer Headbands, Mouthguards Don’t Prevent Concussions

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Parents of young athletes should be warned that some sports equipment manufacturers are trying to capitalize on concussion fears with claims that their gear can prevent head injuries, the director of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said during a recent interview.

Despite what some manufacturers claim, “there is no reviewed, known literature that says mouthguards or headbands prevent against concussions,” said Dr. Dennis Molfese, director of the brain center and scientific director of the Big 10/CIC-Ivy League Traumatic Brain Injury Research Collaboration.

Brain-Pad touts the impact-absorbing qualities of its protective headband on its website.

Brain-Pad touts the impact-absorbing qualities of its protective headband on its website.

The Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on false claims made in mouthguard ads for the past few years. The FTC reached a settlement in August 2012 with Brain-Pad Inc., and its president, Joseph Manzo, prohibiting the company from claiming that its mouthguards can reduce risk of concussions. At the time, Brain-Pad’s website stated that they could.

Brain-Pad’s website now makes no such claim.

That November, the FTC sent warning letters to 18 sports equipment manufacturers whose product lines included mouthguards, ordering them to reword their product descriptions, according to Betsy Lordan of the Office of Public Affairs.

But now, Molfese said, companies are claiming that a “rubber band” that goes around the heads of soccer players prevents concussions. “There is no data for this claim,” he said.

Brain-Pad touts the impact-absorbing qualities of its protective headband on its website.

Brain-Pad, for instance, says on its website that its headband “reduces impact energy up to 50 percent” without demonstrating where the information was gathered. While the website doesn’t use the word “concussion,” the phrasing used can be misleading, Molfese said.

“We’re all concerned about fraud,” Molfese said. “Parents say, ‘My kid has a headband, why can’t they go back to play?’ And that’s because there is no fully preventative measure.”

When asked if Brain-Pad’s wording could be construed as deceptively advertising concussion prevention, Lordan declined to comment, stating the FTC doesn’t speak about individual companies unless announcing a complaint or order violation.

Manzo, meanwhile, was clear in delineating that his products don’t make any concussion claims. “Brain-Pad claims that its products are proven to reduce impact forces to the base of the skull; we say nothing about concussions. No one knows anything about concussions,” he said in a recent interview.

When asked if he thought the phrasing used on his site could be confusing to consumers that the headband reduces concussions, Manzo replied, “I don’t know. … I just know they’ll think it reduces impact forces.”

Molfese recently collaborated on a paper published by the National Academy of Sciences entitled, “Sports-Related Concussions in Youth: Improving the Science, Changing the Culture,” which discusses false marketing and deceptive language being used to take advantage of growing concussion awareness. Molfese says companies are using the growing notoriety of concussions to make a profit on their products that don’t actually help.

“We get 10 to 15 calls a week from parents asking about mouthguards and headbands and how they can help with their kid’s concussion,” says Molfese. “And that’s the danger.”

By Antonio Barbera
Capital News Service

Applying to College Following a Concussion: One Student’s Road Map

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Mia Dinardo, a senior at Frederick High School in Frederick County, doesn’t remember much about the soccer game Sept. 17 that led to a collision that knocked her face down into the grass, unable to get up.

She had to learn to deal with symptoms of the resulting concussion that kept her out of high school for six weeks — including headaches that strike when she reads and writes. She had to learn to fill out college applications despite that pain, including to her top choice, the University of Maryland.

But her experience proved the college application process and the coursework required for college can be completed even with some lingering concussion symptoms, she said. She had to marshal help from a variety of sources, though — including family, high school teachers and counselors. And she had to learn to advocate for herself.

Dinardo had originally planned to apply to five colleges, but she dropped the number to three when she found she couldn’t finish Penn State University’s and Florida State University’s applications. Essay writing had become difficult for her, she said.

Her final lineup was Miami University, Ohio State University and Maryland.

Dinardo said she made sure to add the story of her concussion into the extenuating circumstances section of the Maryland application — as instructed by Frederick High School guidance counselor Danielle Moore.

Moore said she also encourages high school students with extenuating circumstances to call college admissions offices with the information about their cases.

Colleen Newman, who has worked in the University of Maryland’s admissions office for four years and has been in the admissions field for eight, said it has been rare for applicants to include that they had a concussion. “I think it’s possible that they don’t think it’s important or that they aren’t sure what they should and shouldn’t share,” Newman said.

However, in the past three years Newman has seen an increase in students sharing their concussion details in their applications, she said. The details help admissions officers “to better put into context how a concussion may have impacted a student academically,” she said. They do not erase academic performance, but they allow a university to make an informed decision, Newman said.

Ohio State University, one of Dinardo’s other college options, does not have a similar avenue for students suffering a concussion to share their story in their applications. The university uses a common application — used by more than 500 colleges and universities — which does not ask for extenuating circumstances, said admissions counselor Polly Pinelli.

And not all believe those details should be shared in an application. Vincent Vanzuela of Collegewise, a division of The Princeton Review that provides college admission counseling services, said he does not think that concussion information should be included unless the student plans to play sports in college. The information is unrelated to a student’s academic plans, he said.

The college application may not be the only stumbling block after a concussion.

Keeping academic performance up to prepare for college sometimes requires high school administrative intervention, Moore said.

“I didn’t realize this till like last month that the staff had to have a big meeting about me, where they all had to discuss what classes I would have to take so I could graduate,” Dinardo said. The staff was discussing her 504 plan, she said.

The 504 plan refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which specifies that no one with a disability, even a temporary one, can be excluded from participating in federally funded programs or activities, including elementary, secondary or postsecondary schooling, Moore said.

The plan details the accommodations that will be needed for these students to have an opportunity to perform at the same level as their peers. For Dinardo that meant placing her in classes for her final semester that would fulfill her graduation requirements and fulfill the treatment requirements of her doctor, restricting her from anything that would cause a headache, like extensive writing.

“Yeah, the grades may drop a little bit, but that’s where the 504 plan steps in to make it equitable, so their grades aren’t affected too negatively,” Moore said.

“Luckily, I was taking film study, publications (yearbook) and tech theatre at that time, so my fourth class, AP human geography, was one of the only classes I had to struggle to catch up on,” Dinardo said.

Her human geography teacher made packets that summarized the lessons and allowed her to “cover most of the information with the least amount of work possible,” she said.

She had a more difficult time getting accommodations her second semester, she said. “I was taking AP literature, statistics and probability and AP Spanish. … Because I had gotten the concussion months before, none of my second semester teachers really believed me about the severity of my concussion, or they just assumed the symptoms had blown over, so I wasn’t very well accommodated the few times that I felt I needed to be,” Dinardo said.

She said her mom helped by reading some of her class material to her.

She finds school more difficult now, even with the medication she takes to manage her symptoms. “Before I was mostly straight As. I never really struggled with school. … Afterwards, I would still understand things, but I don’t think I test as well as I used to,” she said.

Despite the setbacks, Dinardo was accepted to all three of the schools she applied to. She said she plans to study criminology at the University of Maryland.

Her advice to others experiencing similar symptoms and hurdles?

“The best advice I feel like I can give is just to take it as an incredibly serious injury — whether it seems like one or not. I’ve had a few friends who have gotten concussions and just written them off as nothing, and that’s one of the things that worries me most, because it’s so dangerous,” Dinardo said.

By Michael-Ann Henry
Capital News Service

US Lacrosse Works Toward Standard for Optional Headgear for Girls

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As awareness of head injuries in high school sports grows, US Lacrosse is working with a national organization to develop a standard for optional soft headgear for girls’ lacrosse players.

“We’re in a process of developing a standard for headgear that’s specific to the women’s game,” said Melissa Coyne, director of the women’s game for US Lacrosse, the national governing body for youth, high school and national-level lacrosse. “It’s a long process. … We’re doing a lot of research with other groups including manufacturers, including independent labs.”

ASTM International, which develops standards for a wide range of materials and has a sports equipment group, is working with US Lacrosse to develop the standard for optional headgear based on the injury forces generated in girls’ lacrosse play.

“It’s not necessarily looking at a particular product or a particular material,” Coyne said. “It’s looking at what we’re trying to accomplish and then allowing manufacturers to design something around that performance standard.”

The only headgear women’s lacrosse players are now required to wear are protective eye goggles and mouth guards. They can’t wear facemasks, and they can’t wear hard helmets, with the exception of the goalie, who is required to wear a hard helmet. Other girls’ players may wear optional soft headgear — but there are currently no standards for that headgear.

Coyne, who is on the committee working with ASTM, hopes they will put a standard out for ballot by early summer, when an ASTM board will vote on it. She anticipates it will be a year before the standard is in place.

Some involved with the game hope the additional emphasis on headgear will raise injury awareness, and thus help with injury prevention.

But helmets may not solve a high incidence of concussions in both the boys’ and girls’ games.

“The larger conversation is that no matter what piece of headgear a player’s wearing in any sport, none of them prevent concussions,” Coyne said.

In their book “Concussions and Our Kids,” Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman write that while wearing hard helmets “virtually eliminat[es] skull fractures,” the helmets “should not be regarded as a solution” to preventing concussions. “Helmets offer little or no protection against accelerations” that twist and torque the head, causing the brain to shift inside the skull, they write.

National studies underscore that concussions are a risk in both girls’ and boys’ lacrosse — but only the boys are now required to wear hard, full-head helmets — along with a slew of body pads.

A 2012 study by The American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at high school athletes from 2008 to 2010 and found that girls’ lacrosse had a concussion rate of 3.5 per 10,000 athlete exposures — higher than the overall injury rate of 2.5 concussions per 10,000 exposures in all 20 sports studied. Boys’ lacrosse had the third highest concussion rate, with 4.0 concussions per 10,000 — behind boys’ football and boys’ ice hockey. Girls’ lacrosse had the fourth highest concussion rate on the combined boys’-girls’ list, followed closely by girls’ soccer.

In girls’ lacrosse, concussions usually resulted from player-equipment contact (55.9 percent), player-player contact (28.8 percent) and player-playing surface contact (11.9 percent), The American Journal of Sports Medicine study showed.

Coyne said protective gear differs for boys’ and girls’ lacrosse because their games are played differently.

“We have one sport, but we have two very different games,” Coyne said. “So the conversation is different for the men’s side and for the women’s side, because the mechanism of injury that occurs in the sport is very different.”

IN PLAY

The differences are clear in the rules of play. Boys are allowed to body check, meaning they can use their sticks to smack opposing players’ bodies in order to dislodge the ball. Girls are not allowed to hit other girls with their sticks.

Some boys’ defenders have a 6-foot-long stick. Every girl’s stick is the same length, about half that size.

“I would say to you that [women’s lacrosse players] don’t wear a men’s helmet for the same reason that a soccer player doesn’t wear a football helmet — it’s not designed for their game,” Coyne said. “So when we’re talking about protective equipment, which we’re always talking about for the women’s game, what we’re really looking for is something that’s game-specific.”

But some members of the lacrosse community point out that while the rules may not allow for full contact between female lacrosse players, that doesn’t mean potentially injurious plays don’t happen. Lacrosse balls are solid rubber and three inches in diameter. The sticks aren’t much longer than 3 feet but are made of metal and plastic and are swung around with passes and checks. Add the two together, and one wrong move can bring serious injury.

It’s these incidental plays that lead to concussions in girls’ lacrosse. Kathleen Lloyd is the varsity girls’ lacrosse coach at Bullis School in Montgomery County, Md., and said her team sustained an all-time high of seven concussions in the 2012 season – the last season before she took action.

Lloyd now requires her players to wear soft, rugby-style helmets, allowed under US Lacrosse rules. She said this season she has only seen about one concussion.

“Is it because of the helmets? I have no idea, but I do know there’s more awareness,” she said. “It’s become another piece of equipment for the girls. They never ask to not wear it.”

Still, some think that introducing any protective headgear into the girls’ game would change the nature of play — making it more aggressive.

Lauriann Parker, a first-year assistant coach for the girls’ junior varsity lacrosse team at Reservoir High School in Howard County, said girls shouldn’t wear helmets. “Having [helmets] would change the game completely. It wouldn’t be girls’ lacrosse.”

Carrie Smith, a third-year athletic trainer at Reservoir High School in Fulton, Md., said girls in hard helmets would probably feel more empowered to “get more physical.”

Lloyd doesn’t agree.

“[With the helmets] they’re not playing any differently or taking any chances they wouldn’t normally take,” she said. “They are not more aggressive. The helmets raise awareness” about injuries.

Could the difference of opinions stem from a lingering stigma against female athletes?

HISTORY

Men began playing modern lacrosse, a derivative of Native American combat-style games, in the mid-1800s. It wasn’t until 1926 that women played their first organized game in Baltimore.

Female athletes went years without any protective gear at all.

In 2005, female lacrosse players were required by US Lacrosse to wear protective eye goggles. In 2007, US Lacrosse mandated the goalie’s full body passing and hard helmet worn today; she is still the only player on the team with such protective equipment.

US Lacrosse says the women’s game “continues to be one of finesse and speed, using minimum equipment and prohibiting intentional body contact.”

While Lloyd took advantage of the option of wearing soft headgear, she is still sensitive to the other half of the debate and understands she’s only tending to the needs of her individual players.

“I’m not here to change the world, and I don’t want to tell anyone how [to play the game],” Lloyd said. “We’re not doing this to say, ‘Look at us.’ This is the least we can do to protect ourselves.”

The current focus on headgear mirrors some of the early discussions over protective eye masks and goalie equipment, leaving some to wonder where this will lead.

“I remember when the girls started playing with the goggles and everyone said, ‘What is this?’ ” Lloyd said. “The game has evolved. It is evolving. So who knows what will happen?”

By Tim Schwartz and Liz Lane
Capital News Service

Concussion Numbers Dip for High School Sports in Howard County

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Howard County Public Schools saw a 19 percent drop last school year in reported sports-related concussions, after numbers steadily rose for several years.

According to six years of data supplied by the school system, the 2012-’13 athletic season showed a significant drop in concussion numbers, for a total of 211 recorded for high school sports. That number is down by 50 from 2011-’12, when county athletic trainers recorded 261 concussions throughout the year.

About 10,000 to 13,000 athletes play sports in Howard County high schools each year, said Athletic Director John Davis.

Football took the top spot in the county’s concussion numbers–accounting for 294, or 26 percent of all reported concussions–during those six years. Reports of football concussions dipped from 55 to 45 from the 2011-’12 season to the 2012-’13 season, the data showed.

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Wrestling accounted for the next highest percentage of concussions, at 13 percent of the reported total for the six years. It was followed by boys’ lacrosse (at 10 percent for the six years); girls soccer and cheerleading (each at 8 percent); and girls’ lacrosse (at 7 percent).

Davis said various factors may have played into last year’s overall decrease in concussions — including limits placed in fall 2012 on full contact practices in football.

He said allowing only two days of full contact practices a week in football, as well as limiting fully padded practices to a few times a week, are some measures the county put in place to try to reduce concussions.

However, Davis said he and athletic staff are unsure if the overall drop in concussions is a trend or an outlier.

“We’re still waiting to see if that [drop in concussions] was an aberration,” he said.

The data showed some other interesting trends.

–Concussions made up about 5 percent of the injuries reported in the county public schools between 2007-08 and 2012-13, with 1,134 reported during the six-year period.

–Sprains and strains were the most common injuries reported for the six-year period, with 8,860 reported, or 37 percent of the total.

The data also showed that reported concussions rose nearly every year before 2012-’13. [The 2009-'10 year was the exception, when they dropped by 3.] Davis said the early increase in concussion reports likely came from more concussion knowledge.

“I think it’s the awareness,” he said. “It went way up after we started imPACT testing.”

The Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test is a baseline test administered to athletes in preseason and then again after athletes are suspected of sustaining concussions. It can help to diagnose a concussion and determine when an athlete safely can return to play. Howard County started imPACT testing in 2007, Davis said.

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Andrew McIntyre, assistant football coach at Reservoir High School in Howard County, said he thinks current rules and regulations are doing a good job of curbing concussions.

He said awareness needs to start from the top down; high-impact hits delivered by NFL players shouldn’t be celebrated on highlight reels.

McIntyre said if the pros start using safer tackling techniques, those will trickle down to lower levels of football, all the way to Pee Wee football. “Little kids need to learn proper tackling,” he said.

McIntyre said critics of teaching safer techniques think that will “take the football out of football.” But, he said, “You can still have football without the helmet-to-helmet hits and kill shots … that cause more damage than we know.”

McIntyre is also the head coach for Reservoir’s wrestling team. In Howard County, wrestling accounted for 13 percent of concussions during the six years.

McIntyre said concussions in wrestling are “inevitable,” unfortunately. “You can’t have equipment [like in football or lacrosse]; it makes the sport dangerous,” he said.

McIntyre said as in football, teaching correct techniques is important to keeping wrestlers safe. “Proper grappling, grabbing and holds,” he said.

As for some of the other high-concussion sports: Davis said cheerleading, which accounted for 8 percent of concussions in the county for the six-year period, is evaluated periodically to see what stunts are allowed and how high pyramids can be. He said limitations on heights and stunts are the key to preventing concussions in that sport.

By Max Bennett
Capital News Service

New Maryland Marijuana Law Explained

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Possessing small amounts of marijuana will not be a criminal offense in Maryland after Oct. 1. Offenders caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana will not be arrested, face jail time or receive a criminal record, under legislation approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley in April.

Under the new law, possession of paraphernalia remains a criminal offense that can lead to jail time. Someone caught with joint could be arrested and charged criminally not for possessing marijuana, but for the rolling paper surrounding it.

Watch the video to learn more about what the new law means for Maryland residents.

or linked to directly: Maryland Marijuana Decriminalization Explainer <

By DREW RAUSO and ALEXANDER GLASS

Rise In Suicidal Behavior At Waxter Girls’ Detention Center

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Incidents involving suicidal behavior among girls significantly increased last year at Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center, a female juvenile detention facility in Laurel.

The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit’s 2013 annual report indicated a spike in suicide ideation and attempts from youth serving time at Waxter. The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit is an independent organization in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office that conducts annual evaluations of the Department of Juvenile Services regulated facilities.

According to the report, the number of ideation – also called suicidal thoughts — and attempts increased from 75 in 2012 to 117 in 2013 – a 56 percent jump.

In the report, the Department of Juvenile Justice had the opportunity to respond to the findings.

“All youth expressing suicidal ideations and or gestures are immediately evaluated by behavioral health staff,” the Department of Juvenile Services wrote. “The youth may verbalize intent or gesture, but be at low lethality because of restricted access to instruments and close staff supervision.”

Eric Solomon, public information officer for the Department of Juvenile Services responded to questions in an email.

“The Department takes every ideation very seriously, “ wrote Solomon.

“The last thing we want to happen is for one of these youth to move forward with their statements. “ Solomon continued. “You will see our response in the … report that these ideations are youth making statements for secondary gain and to get attention from the staff. Many of these statements came from the same individual.”

Solomon wrote that 62 individual girls were responsible for the 117 incidents in 2013, and 51 girls were responsible for the 75 incidents in 2012.

Capital News Service’s requests for access to the Waxter facility, interviews with staff or youth and copies of the incident reports were denied.

Solomon responded to additional questions by referring to the content of the report issued Feb. 18 by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit.

That response indicated: “While there was an increase in reported incidents of suicidal ideation, only two incidents involved gestures, and no youth required transfer to a hospital setting.”

The report continued: “The high frequency and low lethality pattern may be indicative of youth displaying this behavior seeking secondary gain in these verbalizations and gestures; either desiring one to one supervision by staff, attention from peers, or to receive other social reinforcers.”

In the response, the Department of Juvenile Services said, “Mental health clinicians and administrators will continue to closely monitor and evaluate interventions for this behavior at Waxter.”

Eliza Steele, Juvenile Justice Monitor for Waxter said that the facility is “not an appropriate place for mental health treatment.”

For Steele, the suicide ideation and attempts are part of a larger mental health issue – particularly among girls.

In the report, the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit states: “Data produced by the Department shows that, in 2010, 75 percent of girls in out-of-home placements had a moderate to high mental health need, compared to 57 percent of boys. However, the availability of mental health services at Waxter is inferior to that at comparable facilities for boys.”

Steele said, “There is a significant number of kids, particularly girls that come into the juvenile justice system with mental health problems.” She added that aside from suicidal behaviors, some girls have other mental problems that the detention centers are not equipped to properly address.

To solve this, Steele suggested an increase in the availability of evidence-based treatment programs for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Waxter formerly served as a detention and committed treatment facility for female youth. The treatment program has been discontinued and Waxter is now a secure detention center with the capacity for 42 girls. According to the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit’s report, the average population in 2013, was 26, which is a reduction of 16 percent from 2012.

Dr. Marilyn Benoit, a board certified child psychiatrist who is not affiliated with Waxter, said that “All behavior is a way of communicating.“

“It may be attention-getting, but look at why they want attention,” Benoit said, “Some of them have problems and don’t know how to communicate what they are feeling.”

Benoit, who has a practice in Kent Island, said that many of the emotional problems incarcerated teens have were developed before they were placed in the system and family problems could have lead them to getting in trouble.

Since Benoit has no direct relationship with Waxter, she couldn’t speak to specific concerns that may be causing the increase. She said that in order to understand why each teen is displaying suicidal behavior, the child’s environment should be evaluated.

“For kids to be in a detention center to begin with, something has gone awry.” Benoit said, and that many of the children in the system have a history of learning problems, mental illness, child and substance abuse issues.

Benoit said that adolescent years are generally a time of “emotional turmoil” for girls and that being in detention leads to more feelings of isolation. She said that for the girls, the incarceration itself is a risk factor for suicidal behavior and referenced incidents of teens around the country committing suicide while in custody.

“They feel that they are social outcasts and are angry,” she said.

By Tamieka Briscoe
Capital News Service

Strong El Niño Could Mean Weak Hurricane Season for Maryland

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Climate scientists expect a particularly strong El Nino this summer to lead to fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic.

The probability that at least one major hurricane will make landfall along the East Coast in 2014 is 20 percent, down from the average of 31 percent over the last century, according to a Colorado State University report released April 10.

The report’s authors, Philip Klotzbach and William Gray, wrote that there should be below-average hurricane activity because of the “significant impact” El Ninos have on Atlantic hurricane activity.

The probability of a major hurricane — with winds above 110 miles per hour — is estimated to be about 65 percent of the long-term average because of the emergence of the climate phenomenon.

It’s unclear how El Ninos form, but abnormally warm water under the surface of the Pacific Ocean is a reliable indication that an El Nino is coming, according to a Nature Climate Change paper by climate scientists Raghu Murtugudde and Nandini Ramesh published in January 2013.

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El Ninos have varied effects based on how they move jet streams, fast-moving air currents that stretch around the globe.

A CNS analysis of wunderground.com and ggweather.com data found that on average, there were four fewer hurricanes in years classified as having had a strong El Nino than years without an El Nino.

For 2014, the CSU report predicted nine tropical storms (the long-term median is 12), three of which will become hurricanes (the median is 6.5), including one major hurricane (the median is 2).

Despite the optimistic forecast, Ed McDonough, public information officer for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said he still worries that a hurricane could make its way up the coast to Maryland.

“It really doesn’t matter how many hurricanes we have in a season. If we have one hurricane, it’s a bad season,” he said. “I don’t worry so much about the forecast; it doesn’t really change how we prepare.”

Residential properties in Maryland have the 11th-highest potential for exposure to hurricane storm surge damage, according to 2013 data from CoreLogic, a business data and analytics firm.

Hurricane Isabel in 2003 brought record-high tides to Maryland, breaking a 1933 record with a tide 7.58 feet above normal. Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, Jeanne and Irene, as well as Superstorm Sandy, have also brought flooding, heavy rain and wind, and widespread power outages in the past decade.

Moderate to strong El Ninos occur about once every 3 to 7 years on average, according to the CSU report. Murtugudde said that because strong El Ninos tend to occur about every 15 years, “we’re due for a big one and this could be it.”

It will be important to monitor El Nino conditions as they develop this summer, Murtugudde said. But for now, it’s unlikely that an El Nino would have significant damaging effects in Maryland.

Usually, El Nino-influenced movements of the jet streams lead to increased rainfall in the Southwest and Southeast and increased snow in the Northeast, Murtugudde said.

If the El Nino gets too strong, however, it could contribute to severe winter weather and more sleet in Maryland, Murtugudde said. Although the jet stream shifts usually don’t affect mid-Atlantic states badly, it’s too early to tell what effects these shifts could have on the region.

The increased rainfall El Ninos can bring can be helpful in minimizing droughts and wildfires in California, Murtugudde said. But particularly strong El Ninos can still have damaging effects, including floods. The most recent “big” El Nino was in 1997-98, Murtugudde said, and it led to “huge” storms across California that caused mudslides.

By Brian Compere
Capital News Service

The Last Stand for Maryland’s Nutria

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On the wall of the nutria eradication team’s drab office at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, there’s a large whiteboard with names and numbers on it. They’re bets for a long-running pool: How many nutria will the team find in the marshes of the Wicomico River?

“The people that guessed 90, 70, 120, they’ve already lost,” says Stephen Kendrot as he drives along a Wicomico County backroad.

It’s an overcast April afternoon with a long-awaited bit of warmth in the air. The nutria project leader is coming back from a site in Quantico, where four of his trappers are roaming the Wicomico River in jon boats. They’ve killed about 120 nutria there so far and found a few more this morning.

The river is the site of the final battle in the long-running quest to eradicate the beaver-like rodents (“nutria” means “otter” in Spanish) that have destroyed thousands of acres of the state’s wetlands over the past 40 years. It has taken longer than expected — news articles profiled the waning fight in 2011 — but finally, the state is almost free of the invasive rodents.

Led by Kendrot, the project, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, has cleared marshes up and down the Delmarva Peninsula over the last 12 years. On the Wicomico River, Kendrot’s team is after the last surviving colony.

The critters feed on the roots and tubers of marsh plants, which cuts up the root mat, a fibrous layer that holds the marsh together. Water can then flush in and out with the tide, eroding the root mat. The marsh begins to sink. Eventually, the wetlands turn to ponds.

The open water has little value to fish and wildlife that rely on the wetlands, and it can’t support vegetation that could provide new habitats.

Additionally, marshes serve as filters that keep pollutants from draining to the bay and even trap some carbon dioxide, said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the non-governmental organizations that supports the project.

Not only does marsh loss eliminate these benefits and destroy habitat and food sources, it also leaves the marsh more vulnerable to other factors, including sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, land subsidence and groundwater withdrawal, Kendrot said.

“A marsh without nutria is somewhat resilient to all these other factors, but with nutria it doesn’t stand a chance,” he said.

The wetlands in the Chesapeake region have experienced more marsh loss than most other wetlands around the world, Kendrot said, and a study in the 1990s proved that, even with other contributing factors, nutria were largely responsible.

The semi-aquatic critters (Kendrot describes them as “a 20-pound rat with a scaly tail and buck teeth”) were brought to the U.S. from South America in the 1940s for the fur trade. They have established colonies in states throughout the Southeast and Pacific Northwest. In Louisiana, the nutria population reached 20 million in 20 years, creating a problem that is now too large for eradication.

The race against nutria in Maryland has cost between $16 million and $17 million total to date; the project receives between $1.3 million and $1.5 million a year, federal money funneled through the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Coming into its 14th year, the nutria project has received substantial attention in the U.S. and around the world. Kendrot, who’s hosted delegations from Israel, China and South Korea, among others, said visitors come from all over to learn about the team’s techniques in the hopes of implementing similar programs in their areas.

Research for a nutria project began in the mid-1990s, the program was launched in 2000, and eradication began as an experimental pilot program in 2002. By 2010, the team was confident it could actually wipe the species from the Maryland landscape.

Their strategy combines more traditional population management techniques with geographic information systems, GPS and mapping technology that Kendrot says sets the program apart. They have pioneered various detection techniques that help them track, trap and kill the nutria, and collected a huge amount of data on the creatures. Catches go back to the shop, where specialists mine the carcasses for information like age, sex and pregnancies.

Detecting the nutria is the biggest challenge, Kendrot said — to figure out both where they are and where they aren’t. The latter is key to eventually achieving eradication.

“How do you go about proving nutria don’t exist? It’s kind of like proving Bigfoot doesn’t exist,” Kendrot said.

During the first year of trapping on the peninsula, the team caught 5,000 nutria at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and in adjacent private lands, Kendrot said. Today, it’s been two and a half years since a “nute” was spotted at the refuge.

The trappers have moved down the coast over the years to cover Fishing Bay, the Nanticoke River, southern Dorchester County, Ellis Bay, Monie Bay, Deal Island and the Choptank River. 

To date, the team has killed more than 13,000 nutria in Maryland, deeming 216,201 acres of the Delmarva Peninsula nutria-free with 11,357 acres to go. (Half of the peninsula’s 500,000 acres was clear of nutria from the start.)

Delmarva, which is bordered by the Chesapeake Bay, is “ground zero” for nutria, where they were first introduced in Maryland. Nine of its major watersheds were infested with nutria at the start of the project, Kendrot said.

Combing the dense marshes for the elusive animals is a big job for a 10-man staff, and their observations can only provide snapshots, so the team must be vigilant, Kendrot said. After they think they’ve eradicated nutria in an area, they begin a verification and monitoring stage to make sure the critters don’t return.

The team estimates that it can catch about 95 percent of nutria in a given area within four weeks, but the last five percent can take just as long as the first 95.

“When it gets down to the last, it gets more interesting. More challenging,” said Richard Elzey, Sr., who has been a wildlife specialist with the project since 2002.

There are probably between 200 and 500 nutria remaining in the area, Kendrot said. They don’t expect to catch the last one, but rather to get the population so low that the remaining few die off.

The team will finish initial trapping by the end of 2014, but they won’t declare the state officially eradicated until 2017, after a period of surveillance to make sure new nutes don’t sneak in.

But the team’s true focus is on what happens after they leave the marsh.

“You can’t measure the efficacy of eradication by how many critters you kill. It’s what you leave behind that determines your success,” Kendrot said.

In some areas, like two sites on the Choptank River and in Somerset County, the marsh recovered completely after the USDA team removed the nutria there, Kendrot said. But there are other places that can never fully recover.

At Blackwater Refuge, the last nutria was caught in December 2011. But the marsh, which was once so dense you could walk across it at low tide, is filled with water.

“Much of this marsh was lost by the 70s and 80s, so a lot of people that visit today don’t even make the connection that this isn’t a healthy ecosystem, it’s not what it should be (or) certainly what it used to be. They just see a beautiful lake with some geese swimming out in it,” Kendrot said.

In 2003, the Blackwater Refuge partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers and Baltimore’s National Aquarium, among others, to restore parts of the refuge, but it cost $300,000 for just six acres. There isn’t funding to restore the more than 5,000 acres of marsh that have been converted to open water, Kendrot said.

Elzey, who grew up near Blackwater and has watched its marshes disappear over the course of his life, said he wished the project had started in the 1970s. He trapped nutria when they were first introduced on the Delmarva Peninsula.

“I remember when it was just a creek running through. All marsh. All marsh, and I tracked it all,” he said.

Some animal cruelty groups oppose the eradication of invasive species, but there has been relatively little opposition to the nutria project compared to similar programs, Kendrot said.

Though the environment is more important than the nutria, the Bay Foundation’s Myers said he wished the dead animals didn’t go to waste.

“There are lots of good uses for nutria, including the meat and the furs and we would probably prefer that that happen as opposed to just allowing them to go, because we think they’re cute and cuddly,” Myers said.

But there is no market for nutria fur or meat, Kendrot said, as places like Louisiana learned when they tried to start up a commercial nutria meat market (though there are plenty of recipes available online for curious hunters). Production costs would be high and Wildlife Services couldn’t ensure the safety of the meat for human consumption, anyway, he said.

Kendrot said the line of work is controversial but justified when considered in an environmental context.

“It’s a hard leap for some people to make. How can killing animals be considered conservation? But the project isn’t to kill nutria. It’s to save the marsh,” Kendrot said.

On the Wicomico River, Elzey and the rest of the team have been trapping for a month. They’re in what they call the knockdown phase: searching for nutes and tracks, looking for catches and setting new traps daily.

The wildlife specialists spend eight to 10 hours a day on the water. In the dead of winter, this sometimes means working with wind howling across a frozen marsh. In the summer, mosquitoes and gnats buzz about in the humid air. Dead nutria often ride with them in the bottom of the boat while the men finish checking the traps.

“If you like doin’ it, then it don’t bother you,” Elzey said. “You’ve gotta love to do it to do the job.”

It takes a certain kind of person to do the project, Kendrot said. Though he’s an avid hunter, he said he has mixed feelings on whether or not killing the animals ever bothers him, saying he doesn’t “like to demonize the critter.”

He names admiration and gratitude as emotions that characterize his relationship with nutes, and he clearly believes in the work he’s doing.

“You know, a lot of people spend their life trying to do something that has a real tangible outcome and obvious impact on the environment or whatever, leave a legacy, and never get that opportunity, and this one’s been dropped in my lap so to speak, and it’s, you know — if we’re successful we’ll have achieved something pretty remarkable,” he said.

By Justine McDaniel

Maryland Companies Have Billions in Assets Overseas

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The president’s budget, released in early March, called for the creation of a national fund to finance repair of the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure — an idea also proposed by a freshman Maryland congressman.

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US Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac

Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac, wants to fund infrastructure repair by bringing home billions of dollars in foreign earnings from U.S.-based corporations.  The congressman said he has been long concerned about decaying infrastructure.

Delaney’s Partnership to Build America Act would create a new way to pay for these repairs. Corporations would provide the money by buying bonds in The American Infrastructure Fund.

In exchange, they would be allowed to bring back money locked up overseas without paying the full 35 percent corporate tax rate.

Delaney’s bill could come as a relief to corporations with large foreign operations that have deferred paying U.S. corporate taxes on their overseas earnings indefinitely. For example, 10 Maryland-based multinational corporations, including Columbia-based MICROS Systems Inc. and Baltimore-based Under Armour Inc., are holding a combined $3.5 billion overseas, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Screen Shot 2014-04-01 at 1.42.15 PMWhile it would mean a major tax savings, none of the 10 publicly held Maryland companies contacted would comment on the proposed legislation.

One expert said there’s little incentive to bring the funds back with so much business opportunity overseas. Instead, it makes sense for U.S. companies to let the overseas funds stay put and postpone a U.S. tax bill.

“It’s better to defer,” said Michael Faulkender, a finance professor at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business.

Further, the Delaney proposal is out of sync with many plans to overhaul the U.S. tax code, he said. “Every proposal on the table is for the corporate tax rate to go down, not up.”

Rich Badmington, W.R. Grace & Co.’s vice president of global communications, said most of the Columbia chemical company’s revenue comes from international operations. The company plans to continue investing in those operations.

“We are able to do that without bringing cash back to the U.S. because we are continuing to invest,” Badmington said. “(Research and development) is a function that requires continuing investment and we have quite a lot of that outside the U.S.”

President Barack Obama’s latest budget plan called for the creation of a government-owned entity to finance infrastructure projects. Delaney said the president’s support for something similar to his bill was “great,” and said it shows how much momentum the bill has.

“We’re very optimistic about it, we have strong bipartisan support,” Delaney said.

The bill has 57 co-sponsors in the House and 12 in the Senate, including Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., head of the Senate Finance Committee’s Taxation and IRS Oversight subcommittee. Hearings have not been scheduled for the bill.

Under the tax code, corporations can avoid paying taxes on foreign earnings as long as the money is being permanently reinvested overseas. When the corporations decide to bring these funds back home, a process called “repatriation,” the money then is subject to U.S. taxes.

Originally, the tax exemption was meant to help U.S. corporations compete overseas, said Mitchell Kane, a tax professor at New York University’s School of Law. Companies claimed paying taxes in two countries would put them at a disadvantage and the government responded with the exemption, he said.

The plan was to have the companies pay foreign taxes, which in many cases are lower than the U.S. tax rate, and then pay U.S. taxes when the money was repatriated. After this process, the company would receive a credit for any foreign taxes paid, Kane said.

Allowing such an exemption has created an incentive for companies to keep their money overseas and defer the U.S. corporate tax, said Jane Gravelle, an economist with the Congressional Research Service. But parking money offshore isn’t a long-term solution for companies, she added.

“They may think they can hold their breath forever and borrow money,” Gravelle said. “How long are they going to be able to do that? Shareholders eventually want dividends.”

This exemption could result in $265.7 billion in lost revenue for the federal government through 2017, according to a 2013 report by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation.

For now, however, companies aren’t likely to repatriate without a major tax discount.

W.R. Grace has more than $1.1 billion held overseas and would have to pay $149.7 million in taxes if it was repatriated, according to SEC filings. That money will remain overseas, except in instances where repatriation would result in minimal or no U.S. taxes, the company said in its most recent SEC filing.

MICROS Systems, a Maryland-based computer hardware and software producer, has about 61 percent of its cash and cash equivalents, $385.8 million, held internationally with no plans to repatriate, according to the company’s most recent filings with the SEC.

Maryland-based apparel company Under Armour has $95.2 million, or 27 percent, of its cash and cash equivalents held overseas with no plans to bring it back.

Spokespersons from MICROS and Under Armour could not be reached for comment.

Other companies have begun to repatriate their foreign funds, which Kane said could help cover corporate expenses. McCormick & Company, a spice, herbs and flavoring manufacturer, repatriated $70 million in 2012, according to the company’s most recent SEC filings. Even still, most of the company’s cash is held in foreign subsidiaries, the filings said.

A spokesperson for McCormick and Co. could not be reached for comment.

Some of the largest U.S. corporations make about half of their money internationally, Delaney said. The bill is just a way to get some of it back.

“It creates a way for some of that money to come back, which is good for our economy,” Delaney said. “And it creates this large-scale infrastructure fund, which is good for our country.”

Instead of government funding, the American Infrastructure Fund would raise cash through a $50 billion bond offering. Companies would buy the bonds at a 1 percent fixed interest rate and a 50-year term, in exchange for a chance to repatriate a certain portion of overseas earnings tax-free for every dollar spent on bonds.

A bond to repatriation ratio would be determined by an auction and could result in companies paying an effective 12 percent tax rate, Delaney said. Money raised in the bond sale could then be leveraged and loaned to state and local governments for projects.

The auction process will benefit both the infrastructure fund and the corporations, which will be able to find a price that is right for them, Delaney said.

“We’ve talked to them and they’re very supportive of it,” he said.

The American Business Conference, Associated Equipment Distributors and Terex Corporation are among those supporting the bill.

Tech giants and pharmaceutical corporations have lobbied for a repatriation holiday since the 2004 American Jobs Creation Act allowed them to repatriate at a discounted rate. Because of the intellectually-based capital that these companies thrive on, it is sometimes easier for them to keep assets overseas.

For example, Apple has $124.4 billion held overseas, according to the company’s most recent SEC filing.

The 2004 bill reduced repatriation taxes to 5.25 percent if corporations promised to invest the money at home. The one-year holiday is widely regarded as a failure because it spurred an increase in repatriation, but not an increase in jobs or investments, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

“The argument was that it would be a stimulus” to the U.S. economy, Gravelle said. “Most people who studied this found out it was being used to repurchase shares.”

Share repurchases are a common way to boost stock prices.

Corporations used the money to pay stockholders dividends and pay off debts, which doesn’t make for a good stimulus, she continued.  Instead, the holiday created a “moral hazard” and companies have parked money overseas, waiting for the next holiday, Gravelle said.

Delaney’s bill has short-term benefits but doesn’t address the larger problems with the tax code, Faulkender said. Corporations will want to move more and more operations overseas if they can find discounts on U.S. taxes, he added.

“If you signal that firms are going to realize a lower tax rate, even after repatriation, on their foreign operations than on their domestic operations, you’re going to incentivize even more offshoring,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s good for the U.S. economy.”

By 
Capital News Service