Changing Michigan climate brings public health hazards

Communities could begin preparing now, report says

By: Kevin Bunch | C&G Newspapers | Published May 3, 2016

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METRO DETROIT — Climate models and existing data suggest that Michigan will be getting warmer in the coming years, with more frequent major storms and humid, stagnant air. A new report suggests that this would bring along a rash of public health concerns for residents as well.

The report — a joint product of the Michigan Department of Human Health and Services and the Great Lakes Integrated Science Assessments program — found that the average temperature in southeast Michigan has increased by 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1951, and by 1.3 degrees in the northwestern Lower Peninsula. Average annual precipitation has increased by 4.5 percent — or 1.4 inches — across the state.

Elizabeth Gibbons, GLISA program director and one of the report’s editors, said the report was created by taking research into current health vulnerabilities in the state and overlaying it with existing climate change data. It allowed researchers to identify what public health threats would likely worsen in the coming decades.

The report found that based on available data, Michigan is facing five major climate-based public health threats up through 2050: increases in heat-related illnesses, water-borne diseases, respiratory diseases, “vector-borne diseases” spread by mosquitoes and ticks, and weather-related injuries including carbon monoxide poisoning.

“It’s something that’s interesting because it’s a concern that we could see crossing multiple seasons, (even though) the instinct is to consider it with ice storms,” Gibbons said about the carbon monoxide poisoning. “Our storms in general are becoming more severe. When we think about precipitation trends, these rain events we have are coming in more severe storms — more rain coming down at a single experience — and those storms stand to cause health threats as well if we’re losing power in the summer, followed by heat where people are running generators for (air conditioning).”

Those severe rain events can also injure or kill people if they flood major roads — as happened in metro Detroit during a storm in August 2014 — or if roads are frozen over in winter thanks to more frequent freezing rain events, Gibbons said. Increased flooding could also lead to additional runoff, which in turn could compromise the water supply.

Gibbons said warmer air temperatures could also lead to air stagnation, where warm, humid air hangs over a specific area, retaining air pollution from cars and industry, as well as pollen. All of these can be particularly bad for the elderly, children and those with allergies.

“The report does call out just the trend we’ve seen over the past few years, from 2001 to 2012,” she said. “This incredible increase in hospitalizations related to allergic disease, it’s something we expect to see an increase of.”

The report highlights that earlier springs and warmer summers and winters could see plants blooming earlier and longer, and also could provide mosquitoes and ticks more time to spread — bringing diseases like West Nile and Lyme disease with them.

Gibbons said this report is the first phase of a multiphase project put together by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As part of phase two, the DHHS is currently putting together a training curriculum for community health practitioners on what kind of interventions are going to be needed to maintain public health and make it more resilient, she said, along with other actions that communities can take to prevent these worst-case scenarios from becoming reality.

One way to do that is to build up “strong social networks” within communities, Gibbons said, such as having neighbors check on one another during heat waves — something she said has been very successful at saving lives.

“Also, increasing communication on air quality and having departments across cities work together,” she said. “We’ve seen agencies on aging work together with the Weather Channel, working together with a department that’s doing some air quality monitoring, to get the word out that there are air quality concerns.”

Gibbons said there are also opportunities for property owners and municipalities to try to reduce potential flooding by providing more places for rainwater to go outside of the sewer system. She said rain gardens and trees can help retain water in place, as can replacing pavement with “pervious pavement,” which allows water to flow through to the ground. That way, less water is making it to the streets and down drains, reducing the risk of the water system being overtaxed during a storm.

Communities with riverfront or lakefront property should also reconsider waterfront development, she added — buffer zones like wetlands can help reduce runoff into the water system, in turn guarding against erosion and health issues like toxic algae blooms.

Marie O’Neill, an associate professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, was one of the researchers who put together the report alongside Larissa Larsen, of the university’s Alfred Taubman College for Architecture and Urban Planning.

“I’m particularly pleased that the report addresses the relationship between climate change, environmental and social factors,” O’Neill said in a statement. “This is an important step in better understanding people at risk.”