Great Lakes illinois Health

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Climate Change in Illinois
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Climate Change Impacts:
Human Health

Human health concerns related to climate change result from a complex set of interacting human and environmental factors. These concerns are particularly serious for the elderly and other vulnerable populations (the very young, the poor, and those whose health is already compromised). Climate change models project that, during the current century, extreme heat periods and severe storms are likely to become more common.

Over the past 15 years, Illinois has experienced a stark preview of such a future scenario as it has experienced a severe drought ('88), flooding ('93 & '02), heat waves ('95 & '96), a severe rainstorm ('96), a windstorm (Bloomington, '99), and numerous severe storms. Events such as these are likely to become more common in a warmer climate. Among potential impacts of climate change with implications for the health of residents of Illinois are:

  • Increased Risk of Heat-Related Morbidity or Mortality
    Over the course of the century, the number of hot days in Chicago (exceeding 90oF) annually is projected to double or even triple, reaching around 40 or more. Of greater concern is the projected increase in extreme heat days (exceeding 97oF). By 2080-2100, Illinois could see more than 25 such days annually. Extreme heat is associated with cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke; and lengthy or repeated heat waves may not allow people to recover. The ill-health effects of heat waves may also be compounded by other problems, such as high humidity and poor air quality. For example, in 1996 Chicago experienced a deadly heat wave that killed more than 700 people. In order to avoid the worst health impacts, residents will need to improve warning systems and preparations.

  • Decreased Risk of Cold-Related Morbidity or Mortality
    Cold-related health risks are likely to decline over time, as the frequency of extreme cold weather periods during winter decreases.

  • A Potential Increase in Ground-Level Ozone
    Chicago SkylineWeather conditions conducive to high ozone levels will occur more often over the next decades, and high heat days may lead to decreased air quality and an increased incidence of respiratory disease. Ground-level ozone is produced by a complex series of chemical reactions involving sunlight, oxygen, water vapor, volatile organic compounds, and oxides of nitrogen. The rates of these reactions increase with higher temperatures. Thus, as Illinois grows warmer, the formation of ground-level ozone, holding air pollutants constant, will increase. Research is underway to assess what may happen when temperatures rise but air pollutants are reduced.

  • Increased Risk of Waterborne Infectious Disease
    Extreme rainstorms can swamp municipalities' sewage and stormwater capacities, increasing the risks of water pollution and waterborne infectious diseases. As a result, outbreaks of waterborne infectious diseases such as cryptosporidiosis or giardiasis may become more frequent or widespread if extreme rainstorms occur more often, as projected under climate change.

    One of the best known examples of a cryptosporidium outbreak occurred in Milwaukee in outbreak occurred in Milwaukee in 1993 after an extended period of rainfall and runoff overwhelmed the city's drinking water purification system and caused 403,000 cases of intestinal illness and 54 deaths. Milwaukee's drinking water originates in Lake Michigan.

  • Increased Risk of Vector-borne Infectious Disease
    The occurrence of many infectious diseases is strongly seasonal, suggesting that climate plays a role in influencing transmission. St. Louis encephalitis outbreaks in the Great Lakes region, for example, have been associated with extended periods of temperatures above 85oF (29oC) and little rainfall. Some Vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease or more recently, West Nile encephalitis, have expanded widely across the region. While this spread is attributed largely to land use changes, future changes in rainfall or temperatures could encourage greater reproduction or survival of the disease-carrying insects, which include ticks and mosquitoes, respectively.

  • The Release of Nutrients and Contaminants into Lakes
    Calumet Park, ILLower oxygen and warmer temperatures promote greater microbial decomposition and subsequent release of nutrients and contaminants from bottom sediments. Phosphorus release would be enhanced, and mercury release and uptake by biota would also likely increase—exposing humans to higher mercury levels via fish consumption.

Photo Credits:
Greater Prairie Chicken -- Illinois State Photo Gallery.
Calumet Park, IL -- Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, photo by David Riecks

Chicago Skyline -- John J. Magnuson
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