Local health departments in Michigan acknowledge threat of climate change to public health

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Deer ticks carry Lyme disease. Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Elaine Mallon

Capital News Service

More than three-quarters — 77% — of local health department officials surveyed across Michigan agree that climate change will impact their jurisdiction in the next 20 years, according to a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

The study examined local health departments’ readiness and perception of climate change on public health.

An undergrad at the University of Michigan, Julie Carter, led the research for her honors thesis project. Carter said the discrepancy between health officials’ view on the impact of climate change and how they prioritize climate change was the most interesting take away from the study.

Only 35% of the officials said that climate change was a priority in their department, even though over three quarters said it will be a problem in the future.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has identified five adverse health effects of climate change. They are heat illness, respiratory diseases due to change in air quality, waterborne diseases, vector- borne diseases, and injury and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Patricia Koman is a research investigator in environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the study.

According to Koman, health departments can’t direct policies centered around climate change without the support of community leaders. She said it’s crucial for people like elected officials and business leaders to also be knowledgeable about health effects related to climate change.

“If these groups have little or no knowledge, or if the local public health department doesn’t know what’s going on with these leaders, that means that they’re not having the necessary conversations about climate change,” Koman said.

“It means that they aren’t doing everything they can to prepare. As we saw in the (Covid-19) pandemic, when we’re not prepared, people suffer.”

Each negative health effect was recognized as a current issue for local departments.

However, 56% of those surveyed said vector-borne illness is a problem. Health and Human Services reports that as winters become milder and summers become hotter, mosquitoes and ticks will survive in larger numbers, leading to greater risk of Lyme and West Nile diseases.

The Michigan Environmental Public Health Tracking reports that 334 ticks were collected in 1999. The population has fluctuated each year, but a record number of 1,412 ticks were collected in 2019. In 2020, the number fell to 650.

In line with the rise in ticks is the rise in Lyme disease cases. The department found 66 Lyme disease cases in 2011. Eight years later, 370 cases were recorded.

Kalamazoo County reported the most cases: 53.

The survey, conducted in 2019 but not published until earlier this year, went to officials from all 45 local health departments in the state. There were 35 responses from both urban and rural areas, representing 60% of the agencies.

Koman said the attitudes of health department officials on climate-related health issues may have changed since 2019.

“The public health implications of climate change are becoming more and more apparent,” Koman said.

According to Koman, recent flooding in the Detroit area, which prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency, and the severe drought at one point across over a third of the state indicate that not only are these effects happening now, but they’re expected to increase.

Since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Climate and Health Program has worked with states in implementing policies and procedures oriented around climate change. The nationwide program receives $10 million in funding, but the Biden administration budget blueprint allocates an increase to $110 million.

At the state level, the climate health program has received $200,000 each year for the past 10 years, according to Aaron Ferguson of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“At least from our program’s perspective, that doesn’t leave a lot to provide direct funding for local health departments,” Ferguson said.

The state agency focuses on training local health department leaders by integrating environmental health impacts in assessments of a community’s needs, and also helps track climate data.

Both Carter and Koman said that one reason local departments may not prioritize climate health effects is because they are underfunded. However, Ferguson said it doesn’t necessarily require extra work to integrate climate health planning into what officials are already doing.

“We just have to reshape with climate effects in mind,” Ferguson said. “Climate change is a risk multiplier, so the things that are already impacting communities, climate change has the potential to make it worse.”

As the manager of the state agency’s climate and tracking unit, he said that while each community may differ in the severity of climate health effects, increased precipitation is the most pressing issue at hand for everyone.

“Mid-Michigan overall has gotten wetter,” he said. “Precipitation is heavier. And just a couple of weekends ago, we saw that the 100-year or 500-year rain and flood events are occurring much more frequently than that. We’ve probably seen four or five of these types of events in the seven years since I’ve been with the department.”

In addition to putting a strain on farmers, increased precipitation has led to flooding in peoples’ basements and potential exposures to sewage and other contaminants.

After a 2014 flood event, Macomb County did a health impact assessment and found an increase in negative mental health effects from the disaster — particularly in low-income and minority areas of the county.

“Mental health in these sorts of recurring events is a big issue, especially when you’re already in the middle of coming out of a pandemic,” Ferguson said.

Along with proponents integrating climate change into the conversation of public health, he said that it must transcend all facets of public life.

“There’s a lot of room for infrastructure design for the climate that we have now,” Ferguson said. “It goes back to bringing the health perspective to infrastructure planners. We need to help them understand that there’s a real health impact, and a lot of it is from climate change, but a lot of it’s because our communities aren’t prepared for that kind of stuff.”

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