July 24, 2012

Physicians for Social Responsibility Unveil Chicago Warming Plan

On June 20th, Chicago Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and Northwestern University’s Environmental Engineering and Science Program announced a Cook County action plan for the health risks posed by global warming.

When it comes to global warming, “adaptation plans are an essential part of the response”, said Dr. Sarah Lovinger, Executive Director of Chicago PSR. Cook County, home to more than 5 million people, is the second most populous county in the United States and is no stranger to extreme weather events.  The 1995 and 1999 Chicago heat waves resulted in nearly 850 deaths. For these reasons, Lovinger said, “it is important that Cook County be prepared for any other climate-related health disasters.”

Cook County’s action plan is modeled after the Center for Disease Control’s Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative. Currently, eight states and two cities have taken steps under the CDC initiative to address health concerns associated with global warming. Several other states have worked independently to address public health in their global warming response plans.

Key findings of the Cook County Climate Change and Public Health Action Plan include:

  • Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. Global warming is expected to increase the frequency and severity of extreme heat events, like those in 1995 and 1999 in Chicago. Other weather events, like strong storms, flooding, and tornadoes, may lead to an increase in infectious disease risk and a reduction in water quality.
  • More frequent heat waves and storms resulting in power outages will lead to higher incidences of foodborne illnesses, as food spoils easily in these situations. Evidence suggests that rising temperatures are expanding the ranges of some pathogens and increasing rates of infection.  Between 2009 and 2010, cases of Salmonella in Illinois rose by 34 percent.
  • Global warming is impacting the rates of diseases carried by pests, including West Nile Virus and Lyme disease. Higher temperatures have allowed for a larger range of distribution of ticks and faster reproduction among mosquitos. Studies show that incidences of vector-borne diseases have increased over the past decade in association with the changing climate.
  • Global warming will cause droughts in some areas and flooding in others. Droughts will result in increased water temperatures that promote bacterial growth, while flooding will lead to increased runoff and water contamination. National data shows that the majority of waterborne disease outbreaks between 1948 and 1994 have followed extreme precipitation events. As global warming continues to impact precipitation patterns, cases of waterborne diseases will rise.
  • Air pollution from some of the same sources that contribute to global warming is responsible for two million premature deaths every year. Human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, increases air pollution and worsens chronic heart and lung diseases. This is troubling news for Chicago, which already has high rates of asthma.
  • For each of these health concerns, the report focuses on the vulnerable populations of Cook County, including young children, the elderly, those with pre-existing medical conditions, and minorities. It is important that the county identify and specifically target these populations during health emergencies.

The report is a reminder that global warming will have real consequences for public health and well-being. According to Kimberly Gray, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University, “The climate changes unfolding in Chicago are in every way, as much a threat to human health as the changes in Arctic climate are to polar bears.  In fact, I really think the poster image for climate change should be children stricken with asthma or struck homeless by extreme storms.”

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