Health Implications of Climate Change On Michigan’s Vulnerable Populations

Michigan’s annual temperature is gradually increasing, causing shifts in long-term global weather patterns. These patterns bring on heavy precipitation, heat waves, flooding, and air pollution. The impacts on health from climate change is well-documented. “We already know climate  change disproportionately affects communities and individuals that have less resources,” says Sue Anne bell, PhD, FNP-BC, Assistant Professor with the School of Nursing at the University of Michigan. Social determinants have a greater impact on a person’s lifespan and quality of life. Vulnerable populations such as children, the disabled, older adults and those of a lower socio-economic status experience a poorer quality of health.

Aftermath of Detroit floods

Climate change caused the flooding disaster of June, 2021 in Detroit. Six to eight inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours, causing devastating financial and personal damage to the homes and lives of its citizens.

The moisture from the untreated sewage which flooded basements aggravated health hazards by fostering black mold. Half of the homes in Detroit experience recurrent flooding. 84% have mold. And half of the city’s homes that didn’t flood have mold. Several studies discovered a correlation between higher amounts of the fungus and asthma.

The Flint water crisis

In 2014, in a cost-effective decision, the city of Flint switched water sources. Almost immediately, its residents experienced health crises related to high levels of lead in their water supply. Later that year, an outbreak of Legionnaire disease struck the community. Officially, twelve died. Legionnaires causes long-term damage to the lungs, heart and kidneys. Twenty others died in the weeks, months and years following their diagnosis; though their deaths weren’t attributed to the disease. Data released the following year showed a total of 9,000 children experienced elevated lead levels from drinking the polluted water. Lead poisoning is known to damage the biological, neurological, and developmental growth in children. The water supply was switched back to the Huron River soon after.

“A major challenge for Michigan residents is having access to a health workforce that is educated on climate threats including being ready and prepared to care for new and emerging health issues such as waterborne diseases that have not been common in Michigan in the past,” says bell.

Respiratory diseases and air pollution

A report  released in 2022 by the Michigan Department of Health And Human Services, (MDHHS), found from 2017-19, the rate of asthma of those in Detroit was 46% higher than anywhere in the state. Allergies, pollution, and shifts in weather and temperature can trigger  asthma symptoms. The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” quality report for 2022, ranked Detroit 24th for its ozone and air particle pollution.

A community in Southwest Detroit, with the aid of an innovative company Just Air collaborated to measure the neighborhood’s air pollution. Using real-time data taken from six installed air quality monitors, the community and start-up hope to show Detroit city officials the city’s air quality must be improved.

Community advocacy and involvement are important to draw public awareness to the struggles others face. However, Bell adds: ‘We need to build systems that allow us to accurately understand the short and long-term effects of climate change on health, understand our responses are effectively mitigating those effects and train and prepare health care providers to address these issues.”

Providing proper health care requires effort at all levels of government. Continuing education for public health officials and workers is necessary. Community residents and advocates must understand community-based health concerns and strive to bring about effective, positive, and long-term changes.