How Does Climate Change Affect Chicago’s Public Health?

From heat waves coinciding with summer music festivals to tick bites in February, the warmer temperatures and extreme weather events that are hallmarks of climate change, have a real impact on public health in Chicago. Higher temperatures can also contribute to the spread of vector-borne diseases, such as those carried by mosquitoes.

“The thing about climate change is that it’s exacerbating existing health problems and inequities,” says Elena Grossman, senior research specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health. “It’s a threat multiplier. Heat related illness, respiratory illnesses, vector borne or water borne diseases, mental health. These are all existing public health problems. Climate change is just increasing the risk.” 

The 1995 summer heat wave in Chicago is still one of the worst weather-related disasters in the state, with more than 700 deaths in just five days. While Chicagoans were spared with a relatively mild summer this year, the city must still prepare for hotter summers in the future. For example, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s Heat Watch 2023 program recruited more than 550 volunteers and community scientists to map map temperatures across the city to pinpoint communities most vulnerable to extreme heat and create hyperlocal strategies for outreach. 

“State and federal agencies can provide data, financial resources, and tools but the action and work happen at a local level,” Grossman says. “When it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change, it’s not a public health superpower to implement a lot of the projects. Especially the engineering projects that will help protect our climate. We’re really good at collecting health data and applying it but public health needs to partner with urban planners, engineers, and architects so that their projects are public health informed.”

Grossman also previously worked as the program director and principal investigator for BRACE (Building Resilience Against Climate Effects)-Illinois, a CDC-funded project whose mission is to prepare the state for the effects of climate change. Grossman says that their primary focus was on climate change adaptation versus climate change mitigation, and from her professional perspective, heat-related illness is not the only problem Chicagoans need to worry about.

“I would say for Chicago, I think respiratory health and flooding are two of the greatest risks,” she says. “Community members have identified those two problems as concerns and it’s really important to listen to community members and have their voices heard.”