From respiratory and cardiovascular disease to bacterial and viral agents, climate change can worsen existing health conditions while creating new health challenges.
“Climate change acts as a threat multiplier,” Dr. Lisa Del Buono, a recently retired diagnostic pathologist and founder of Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action, told Planet Detroit. “You can take any chronic condition that is well-managed and add climate change – extreme heat events, extreme weather events, and get catapulted into a medical emergency.”
Planet Detroit spoke with experts to bring you this guide on how climate change might impact your health and that of your community – and what you can do about it.
How does climate change affect my health and my community’s health?
Climate change is already impacting health across the globe. A September 2021 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine calling on world leaders to take emergency action to limit climate change cited a sobering statistic: In the past 20 years, heat-related mortality among people over 65 has increased by more than 50%.
Climate change's health impacts disproportionately impact children, the elderly, minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the health effects of climate change include “increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health.”
“We have more days where more people are suffering from allergy problems. We have more days in which people are exposed to ticks and mosquitoes that can carry West Nile virus and Lyme disease,” Del Buono said.
The CDC and the IPCC expect the following health impacts in the Midwest:
Heat-related death and illness: Heat-related illnesses like dehydration and heat stroke are expected to rise in the Midwest, impacting northern communities that may not have experienced heat-related health issues. We will see a significant increase in extreme temperature-related premature deaths compared with other regions. A combined heat wave and extended power outage could be especially deadly for Detroiters. “The heat, especially in the city where there's so much concrete, and it doesn't cool down… I think about the elderly being unable to handle that, but we also lose young athletes every year, and pregnant women are more likely to deliver during that time. If they deliver early, it can lead to a lifetime of developmental problems,” Del Buono said,
Worsening air quality: Increasing heat in the Midwest is expected to cause concentrations of ground-level ozone to increase, resulting in an additional 200 to 550 premature deaths in the region per year by 2050. Ground-level ozone forms when pollutants from cars and industries react with sunlight. It’s most likely to reach unhealthy levels on hot, sunny days - which is why you’ll what about “Ozone Action Days” on hot days. Breathing ozone can reduce lung function. Ozone can trap particulate matter in the air, worsening air quality. Children, especially those with asthma, are most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. Detroit’s asthma rate is higher than the rest of the state – and it is getting worse over time.
Extreme events: Extreme weather events most likely to occur in Michigan include floods, severe storms, winter storms, wildfires, power outages, and tornadoes. In Michigan and Detroit, climatologists project that conditions will continue to become warmer and wetter and that we will experience more extreme rainfall, which, combined with our outdated water infrastructure, increases flood risk. We’ve recently seen massive flooding in metro Detroit, which experts say presents one of our most significant public health crises. Flooding allows mold to take root in homes, worsening indoor air quality and exacerbating respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD.
Vector-borne disease: Extended growing seasons with warmer temps mean better habitats for disease-carrying insects like mosquitos and ticks. Experts expect a northern expansion of the mosquitos that carry the West Nile Virus, bringing 450 additional cases by 2090 compared with 1995.
Water-related illness: More intense rainfall in areas with inadequate sewer systems means more raw and partially-treated sewage released into waterways. That sewage poses health risks from direct contact and fouling source water for drinking water systems. Warmer surface waters increase the risk of harmful algal blooms and fish contamination.
Mental health: Experiencing a flood and the subsequent financial and life disruption affects mental health. Research shows flooding is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. Taylor Barrow, a third-year Wayne State University medical student, told Planet Detroit she’s witnessed the effects of flooding in her patients. A recent patient “was just so nervous when the rain was coming because previously, the rain wiped out her entire house,” Barrow told Planet Detroit.
Food insecurity: According to the United States Department of Agriculture, global food security is at risk from the effects of climate change. USDA predicts supply chain disruptions, increased food prices, decreased yields, poorer nutritional quality, and poorer food safety. Local innovations will be paramount to improving food security and feeding those who need it most.
Who is most at risk of suffering the health impacts of climate change?
Those most vulnerable to the health effects of climate change are the same who are most susceptible to disease in the first place – the very young, the elderly, people of color, and low-income communities. According to EPA, these groups are most at risk:
Children: Children are vulnerable because they are growing – they drink more water per body weight and breathe air at a faster rate than adults, making them more susceptible to pollution and its effects.
Socially vulnerable people: Communities of color, people with low incomes, some immigrants and non-English speakers are among those who are more likely to live in places with high pollution burdens and aging infrastructure, have existing medical conditions, and lack access to healthcare and other resources.
Indigenous populations: Indigenous populations are more likely to have certain medical conditions, have poor access to infrastructure and face institutional barriers to their traditional ways of adapting, such as a lack of control over land and water resources.
Older adults: Older adults have a diminished capacity to cope with pollution, are more likely to have chronic medical conditions and limited mobility, and are more likely to depend on others for personal and medical care, which increases their vulnerability during extreme weather events.
People with chronic medical conditions: Those with chronic medical conditions have a heightened risk of illness or death during extreme weather events and may take medication that interferes with their ability to cope. Those with mental illness may face disruption to their care during emergencies.
People with disabilities: People with disabilities may not be considered during emergency planning or may not receive emergency alerts, may face disrupted care during emergencies and are more likely to have social and economic risk factors.
Workers: Those who work outdoors or indoors in spaces without climate control are at greater risk of exposure to extreme temperatures, poor air quality and disease vectors. Frontline workers like paramedics, firefighters and police are more likely to be exposed to heat, smoke and flood waters.
Pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women: Climate-related hazards like heat, flooding, and smoke have been linked to poor pregnancy outcomes, including anemia, eclampsia, low birth weight, preterm birth and miscarriage.
How are healthcare leaders and providers working to address the health impacts of climate change?
Dr. Lisa Del Buono is among many clinicians taking up a climate change advocacy mantle. Del Buono, who founded the Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action, told Planet Detroit that raising awareness about climate change’s health impacts among providers is crucial.
“If you were to go out into the regular world and talk to practicing physicians, for the vast majority, climate change is not on their radar,” Del Buono said. “As health professionals, we should be able to help change the narrative.”
MICCA is one of 27 state groups affiliated with the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, which unites professional physician societies, including the American Medical Association, around calling for action on climate change. It works towards “educating, empowering, and engaging health professionals, the general public, and policymakers.”
Del Buono said responding adequately to climate change issues will require a different approach to practicing medicine. For example, she said that if a patient comes in with a heat-related illness, physicians should not send them home to an apartment without air conditioning.
“Maybe I, as a physician, need to figure out some way to get them home with something that will protect them over time – a fan or something else,” she said. “It's a different way of holistically approaching medicine and connecting dots.”
Barrow, the medical student, would like to see more attention paid to the health impacts of climate change in her curriculum.
“Medicine is a very social profession. Still, we're not necessarily trained in that social aspect,” said Barrow, a former social worker. “The fact that Detroit has higher rates of cardiovascular disease is all about hypertension, but we're not talking about, okay, why, what's happening behind this, right? The root causes.
Barrow is especially interested in helping people cope with the mental health challenges brought on by climate change.
“Lower-income majority-black neighborhoods are at the forefront of the effects of climate change,” Barrow told Planet Detroit. “I want to bring in the mental toll that that takes generationally… and how to take care of your mental health when you're at the center of the climate crisis.”
Other groups and organizations working at the nexus of climate and health care include:
How are our local and state governments working to address the health impacts of climate change?
Since 2009, Michigan’s state health department has undertaken a Michigan Climate and Health Adaptation Program, launched with the support of federal CDC grants through its Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative.
Throughout the program’s life, staff produced a variety of resources, including a Michigan Climate and Health Profile Report and a Michigan Climate and Health Adaptation Program Strategic Plan Update: 2016-2021.
Part of the effort focused on equipping local governments and local health departments to increase their capacity for managing the health impacts of climate change. To that end, state staff worked with local government partners to produce Health Impact Assessments for cities and counties, including Macomb County, Ingham County, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. It also produced a compilation of emergency preparedness resources and a planning guide and training resources for municipal planners.
Now in its third phase, the project is implementing pilot projects in Marquette and Detroit. State health department staff have worked with the city to implement emergency response plans for extreme weather events, such as the city’s plan for cooling centers to give residents a place to go during heat waves.
What are grassroots groups doing to address the health impacts of climate change?
Grassroots groups like Eastside Community Network and the Bailey Park Neighborhood Development Corporation are on the front lines of building strategies to protect communities from climate change's health effects. They are creating climate resilience hubs where people can find emergency and social support services, internet access, health and wellness workshops, and workforce development. These hubs are working to prepare for any eventuality.
“One thing we’ve learned is you can’t predict what sort of climate emergencies will come your way,” Eastside Community Network's Donna Givens Davidson told Planet Detroit after supporting neighbors through a recent fund at the Stoudamire Wellness Hub on Detroit's east side. “We were trying to prepare for a heat emergency, and we ended up with rain.”
What can I do to prepare myself and my family for the health effects of climate change?
Taking action to stay healthy or improve your health is one of the best things you can do – and many steps, like eating less meat and walking or biking to school when feasible, also help reduce greenhouse gases, according to Del Buono.
- Make sure any existing chronic diseases are well-managed, and you have a plan for continuing care and accessing medication in an emergency.
- Increase your food security by growing, producing, and storing some of your food if possible.
- Work to ensure your home environment is as healthy as possible – follow these tips from the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.
Here are some more things to think about:
Being prepared for an emergency – especially when dealing with family members who may have mobility or other health challenges, is crucial, according to Dr. Sue Anne Belle, a health services research and assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s nursing school.
“I think a lot about how we can build better health care systems around climate change and disasters for older adults specifically,” Belle told Planet Detroit. “Some but not all older adults might be more vulnerable to disaster events.”
Because of factors like mobility challenges, frailty, and the need for medications and medical equipment, many older people prefer to stay in place rather than evacuate during disasters – something we saw during Hurricane Ian, where the majority of drowning victims were 65 or older.
While we might not have hurricanes in Michigan, we will likely face floods, tornadoes, severe storms, and even wildfires. We may lose power or water more frequently, for more extended periods.
Belle advises developing an emergency preparedness plan with healthcare providers’ input. She said home health agencies are increasingly putting together such programs for their clients in conjunction with healthcare and emergency response stakeholder groups. And building an emergency kit is also an important step, Belle said.
“Older adults report feeling more prepared when there's been a plan in place that they've had some input in and the opportunity to talk about and discuss,” Belle said.
Here are some resources from Ready.gov preparing for climate-related events and disasters:
- Make a plan
- Build a kit
- Low and no-cost preparedness
- Flooding preparedness
- Extreme heat preparedness
- Severe weather preparedness
- Tornado preparedness
Protect vulnerable populations
Actions to help protect any vulnerable people in your family and community are crucial. According to EPA, such steps may include:
Children: Keep kids cool during hot days, take special care to protect them from outdoor and indoor air pollution, and use insect repellent to avoid bites. More>>>
Socially vulnerable people: Check on your neighbors, get involved locally, and plant trees to reduce the urban heat island effect. More>>>
Indigenous people: Tribes can build climate resilience plans, protect water resources and stay informed about air quality. More>>>
Older adults: Check on older members in your community, plan to help them in an emergency and help make sure adequate food and water are available. More>>>
People with chronic medical conditions and disabilities: Watch out for heat and poor air quality and make a plan to manage your condition in an emergency. Form a support network. More>>> and More>>>
Workers: Keep cool and stay hydrated, check outdoor air quality and take measures to improve indoor air quality, plan and train to avoid heat illness. More>>>
This Planet Detroit Climate Guide is supported by the Americana Foundation and the GM Foundation.