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The dangerous climate change threat flying under the radar

In 1993, an extreme rain overwhelmed the city of Milwaukee’s water filtration system and the parasite cryptosporidium infected 370,000 people per 800,000 population. The infections killed more than 100 people and hospitalized over 4,400. Research shows that the majority of waterborne disease outbreaks in the US are associated with extreme rain events.

When we discuss the effects of climate change, the dialogue is generally about melting ice, sea level rise, and extreme weather. For scientists at Michigan State University, this isn’t enough. In a recent op-ed in Quartz, researchers Dr. Joan Rose and Dr. Felicia Wu brought attention to the growing problem of water quality, water infrastructure, disease, and how they relate to a changing climate. “Climate change affects both water quality and food safety, which will both have important impacts on public health in the absence of appropriate interventions…. evidence from more than 100 articles found that heavy rainfall, flooding and severe storms were associated with outbreaks.” And extreme weather events are likely to increase due to global warming.

Scientific evidence points to climate being a driving factor of waterborne diseases. “Heavy rains have been linked to increases in Legionellosis (Legionnaires Disease), wound infections, respiratory diseases and conjunctivitis.” Today, in New York City, nearly 90 people are infected with LD and that number is expected to rise. Seven of them have died. Since 2000, the CDC reported a 217% increase in LD cases across the United States.

The risk is disease and our infrastructure is struggling to keep us safe. The article looks at both drought-related and excess water-related illnesses and I recommend reading it through. With that being said, I would like to bring attention to just one particular area of interest for those of us in the Midwest.

“Phycotoxins are produced by algae that can contaminate shellfish such as lobsters, oysters, clams, and mussels; or can be inhaled in the event of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and wind currents directed toward humans.” HABs in Lake Erie are primarily the result of large-scale phosphorus run-off and warmer weather. We’ve been tracking the algal bloom growth in western Lake Erie, which now has the potential to be the largest in history due to the extreme rains across Ohio. The most recent major bloom overwhelmed the city of Toledo’s water systems and took away clean, potable water from hundreds of thousands of people.

“Extreme weather events are likely to increase and droughts are spreading across the western part of the US. This means that communities must have emergency response plans in place for natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods and ultimately plan for purifying wastewater to mitigate both scarcity and pollution.”

CDC Incident Reports | CDC Water Surveillance | CDC Legionnaires Study



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