Alan Piñon

Michigan getting sick over climate change.

Disease-carrying bugs, pollen-induced asthma and soupy, algae-filled lakes that might make us sick? Eh, no thanks.

By Brian Bienkowski


The Daily Climate 

Talk to folks in Michigan this time of year, and a little bump up in the thermometer doesn’t sound half bad. But disease-carrying bugs, pollen-induced asthma and soupy, algae-filled lakes that might make us sick? Eh, no thanks. 

It’s these health impacts, coinciding with northern Midwest climate changes, that worry health officials: Breathing problems from more pollen and air pollution, more water- and insect-borne diseases, and heat-related sickness. 

“We don’t have the iconic shift of increased forest fires and crippling droughts, but climate change is still here and still impacting communities,” said Elizabeth Gibbons, director of the University of Michigan’s Climate Center.

Gibbons is also a program manager at the Great Lakes Integrated Science and Assessments Center, which co-released a climate and health report with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services this week. Over the past 65 years temperatures have been rising in the Michigan—ranging from increases of about 0.6°F in the southeastern Lower Peninsula to a 1.3°F rise in the northwestern Lower Peninsula. Scientists project an additional increase of 1.5°F to 4.5°F by 2050. 

In 70 years, researchers estimate Michigan summers will be more like those currently in southern Illinois and Missouri.

Over the same time, the yearly precipitation average across the state increased by 4.5 percent (1.4 inches), with heavier storms accounting for a bigger chunk of the precipitation. 

The state’s health data has these climate change fingerprints on it. Rising temperatures, humidity and stagnant air bring increased air pollution and earlier pollen releases. From 2001 to 2012, hospitalizations due to allergy diseases, largely from asthma, rose 71 percent. 

Disease-carrying insects prefer warmer winters, early springs and hot summers. Not surprisingly, they are on the rise in the state, too. The mosquito-borne West Nile Virus arrived in Michigan in 2002; in 2012 Michigan saw a spike of 202 cases and 17 deaths coinciding with abnormal heat and drought that year.  

Lyme disease-carrying ticks were first found in the state in 1992, but were initially only in one county—Menominee—in the southwest Upper Peninsula. 

Today the ticks are found statewide. In 2013, Michigan health authorities reported 165 cases of Lyme disease. And, according to the new report, experts expect respiratory illnesses and mosquito- and tick-caused diseases to continue increasing. 

Warming temperatures also can spur water-borne diseases, such as Legionella, which thrives in warm water and, if it gets into lungs, can cause Legionnaires' disease. While not currently linked to climate change, an outbreak in Flint over the past two years left at least 12 people dead. 

Michiganders are “all too familiar” with the health risks in the report, said Andy McGlashen, communications director at the Michigan Environmental Council.

“The temporary shutdown of Toledo's drinking water system in 2014, for example, showed us that toxic algae blooms are a serious public health threat, and far too many children in Detroit and other parts of the state are suffering from asthma,” he said. “Climate change threatens to make those problems even worse and demands immediate action.”

In one of the more novel climate-related health impacts, the report warns of increased carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used improperly during power outages, which are projected to increase with more extreme storms and flooding. The report points to a nasty ice storm in December 2013, which left more than 400,000 Michigan homes without power and spurred 81 emergency department visits due to carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Linking temperature and precipitation changes to health impacts always involves uncertainty, Gibbons said. But “putting data to some of the suspicions that we have had" is important, she added. And it’s better to be proactive, she said, crediting Michigan health officials for moving quickly. 

“There’s a positive story here, that the state’s engaging in this process,” she said. “[Climate change] may be here and impacting communities but we have time to at least try to manage the impacts.”  

State health officials turned down a request to comment on the report.

The report is part of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program called BRACE, or Building Resilience Against Climate Effects. Michigan is one of 16 states participating. 

Gibbons said the next step is intervening in some of these potential climate-related health concerns, which will include educating communities and perhaps even very practical solutions like teaching people how to properly use generators to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

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