Climate change will impact respiratory health in Grand Rapids

By David Porte and Natasha Strydhorst

Climate change is advancing and its effects are already widespread. How these effects will influence the health of the public is a critically important but often overlooked aspect of climate research. Aaron Ferguson, WMEAC alumni and current Climate and Health Adaptation Program Manager at Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, helped author new research on just this issue. His work contributed to the Michigan Climate and Health Profile Report, which explores how changing temperatures, precipitation, and storm patterns will impact public health.


How Michigan will Experience Climate Change

The research team gathered data from weather stations throughout the state. The data revealed some climate changes that have already been experienced in Michigan: warmer temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, reduced ice cover and warming of Lake Michigan, extreme precipitation, extreme temperatures, and periods of drought. These effects have already been taking a toll on the health of Michigan residents, and are a precursor of what to expect in the future. In the near future, the most probable impacts from climate change will be extreme heat events—extended periods of higher temperatures and humidity—changes in precipitation patterns like increased rain leading to flooding, and extreme weather such as heavy snow and freezing rain. These impacts have been identified as having the most significant effects on the public’s health.


Michigan’s Vulnerabilities to Climate Change

When trying to predict how climate change will impact public health outcomes, a community’s vulnerability must be evaluated. Vulnerability can be seen as having two parts: exposure and sensitivity. Exposure is how frequently and intensely a community will experience the effects of climate change. Sensitivity is how resistant the community will be to those effects. A community’s level of exposure is influenced by the natural and built environments. The natural environment includes vegetation, water, and topography; the built environment includes urban infrastructure. These factors all play a crucial role in evaluating how climate change will impact health outcomes.

The report outlines key health priorities for the state—all of which can be tied to expected, and already experienced, climate changes in the region. Southwest Michigan and Grand Rapids are expected to face the following critical challenges in the coming decades:

  • Respiratory diseases: the potential for reduced air quality, coupled with longer growing seasons for certain pollen-producing plants, could exacerbate conditions such as asthma and seasonal allergies in susceptible populations.
  • Heat illnesses: as average temperatures rise throughout the region, the probability of heat waves and hot days will grow, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses. Heat islands in urban centers that house less mobile populations are particularly vulnerable.
  • Water-borne diseases: as severe rainstorms become more frequent and more intense, flooding will increase the risk of sewage overflows, water contamination, and algal blooms. Many communities in southwestern Michigan employ combined sewer systems that transport both sewage and stormwater. Extreme storms overwhelm these systems and discharge untreated sewage into waterways.
  • Vector-borne diseases: as temperatures creep up, so can the habitat ranges of disease-carrying insects, such as mosquitoes (which can carry West Nile virus) and ticks (which can carry Lyme disease).


    Photo of a deer tick by CDC/ Anna Perez.


Photo of a mosquito by CDC/ Prof. Frank Hadley Collins, Dir., Cntr. for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, Univ. of Notre Dame.

  • Injury and Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning: the likelihood of power outages increases as the probability of extreme weather events does. More power outages means greater reliance on generators—which, in turn, increases the risk of Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

Michigan Climate and Health Adaptation Plan (MI-CHAP)—a collaborator on the report—is developing the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects framework for the state, which is expected to be completed by September of this year. Over the next five years, MI-CHAP will be working to implement measures to alleviate climate change-associated health risks.

WMEAC wants Grand Rapids to be aware of these issues going forward. Its Climate Resiliency Report, released in 2013, highlights the local implications of global climate change. The primary response to a studies like WMEAC’s and the Michigan Climate and Health Profile Report should be seeking ways to combat climate change. Each citizen has a responsibility to do his or her part in reducing our collective impact on climate change. From using a rain barrel to riding a bike to recycling, there are a myriad of ways for people to get involved. Together, we can reduce and hopefully alleviate the effects of climate change. Our future health depends on it.

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