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These are the 5 biggest health threats from Michigan's changing climate

A storm
Michigan will see more extreme storms as the climate changes

By 2095, Michigan's summers will be like those we're used to seeing in Arkansas and Mississippi. Our winters will be like West Virginia's and Kentucky's.

And that changing climate – with extreme heat, big storms, plus a LOT more rain and snow – means we're looking at five major health risks, according to a new report from climate researchers and the state health department.

1)      Respiratory diseases like allergies and asthma, which are sending more and more Michiganders to the hospital each year, according to the report.   

2)      Heat illnesses, like heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – which may be especially tough for those in cities without much green space, which can create an “urban heat island effect.” Heat waves also raise the risk of hospitalization and death for people with diabetes. But even without what we typically think of as “extreme heat,” temperatures in the 80’s can be tough in areas like northern Michigan, where at-risk residents (like the elderly) may not have air conditioning or another way of getting out of the heat. “If you’re in a community like Marquette or Ironwood, that’s stressing people,” says Elizabeth Gibbons, director of the University of Michigan’s climate center.

3)     Water-borne diseases: We’ve already seen the effects of a Legionella outbreak in Flint. But the kind of wet, stagnant waters and warming weather that we’re seeing with climate change also increases the risk of Legionella. Harmful bacteria – like the kind that made Toledo-area water unsafe for several days in the summer of 2014 – will also increase.  

4)      Vector-borne disease: This means mosquitoes and ticks. West Nile Virus is already here, with a peak of 202 cases and 17 deaths in the state in 2012. But we haven’t seen as much Lyme disease as states in the Northeast, and that could change. “As the warming comes earlier, and lasts longer, there are disease vectors that are going to be changing – and likely not for the better,” Gibbons says.  

5)      Injury and CO poisoning: These become more common as Michigan sees more extreme storms during both the summer and winter. Power outages mean more people running generators, which can lead to deadly fumes wafting inside. “I think it’s these really insidious impacts of climate change,” says Gibbons.   

Still, Gibbons says this report isn’t meant to be “all doom and gloom,” but rather a road map for what we should prepare for – and where we should focus our efforts.

“We have an opportunity to prepare ourselves and our communities, and to prepare for interventions that will lead to better health for us. We have an opportunity to strengthen our community networks, to strengthen our infrastructure. We have tremendous adaptation opportunities … so that we don’t need to be victims of those climate change impacts when they come down the line,” she says. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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