Drink at your own risk: Global warming, disease, and our water

When experts talk about how global warming will increase the risk of disease, we usually hear about tropical diseases — dengue fever, malaria, and anything that could be carried by a mosquito (see “Science: Extreme rains supercharged by warming“). We don’t think about our own backyards or street sewers and water resources in the U.S..

As a recent Washington Post article reports, however, we should. As temperatures increase and continental rainfall also gets warmer, waterborne diseases will flourish and without major infrastructure upgrades, our exposure to the diseases will likewise grow.

Simply from increased frequency and severity of torrential downpours, disease will be able to attack us from a growing number of fronts – at the beach, in our drinking water, from our sewers, in seafood, after a mosquito bite. The WaPo article focuses on how urban infrastructure systems are not prepared to handle the weather forecast – the rains will overflow sewer systems and threaten to mix sewage, storm water, and drinking water.

The article reports, “From 1948 to 1994, heavy rainfall was correlated with more than half of the nation’s outbreaks of waterborne illness, according to a 1991 study commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency.” The article’s examples include:

  • In one of the worst, torrential rains in Milwaukee in 1993 triggered a sewage release that exposed 403,000 people to cryptosporidium, a protozoan parasite transmitted in fecal matter. Fifty-four people died.
  • On Ohio’s South Bass Island in Lake Erie in the summer of 2004, at least 1,450 residents and tourists suffered gastrointestinal illnesses linked to several months of above-average rains that contaminated the town’s drinking water.
  • On Sept. 13, during an unrelenting downpour, Chicago chose to prevent urban flooding by opening and releasing runoff containing raw sewage into Lake Michigan.
  • Climate-change-driven disease is at our door (and faucet). In the words of the country’s leading authority on the subject, Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School:

    It will be the next few years. This is not 20 years away. It’s already occurring. The CDC is gearing up to deal with [it], but at the same time, we need to be focused on the primary driver, which is our unstable climate. We need to do all of the above — protect, prepare and prevent.

    For more on this subject, you can read some of Epstein’s prolific work on the subject here, including his New England Journal of Medicine article, “Climate change and human health” and the exhaustive Climate Change Futures: Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions.

    — Kari M.

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    3 Responses to Drink at your own risk: Global warming, disease, and our water

    1. David B. Benson says:

      Drink beer or watered wine. Our ancestors used to do just that.

    2. Heather says:

      As someone who works on Great Lakes issues as well as climate change, I would point out that this really underscores that we need to upgrade the infrastructure of our water systems. The fact that heavy downpours of rain cause the storm drains to back up into the sewer lines, resulting in discharges of raw, untreated sewage into our lakes, streams, and (in case of local flooding) sometimes our streets and homes is simply unacceptable and really inexcusable for the richest country in the world.

    3. David B. Benson says:

      Heather — Probably not the richest country anymore. Try Dubai or United Arab Emerates.