Climate warming linked to illness

Water diseases expected to rise

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post / October 21, 2008
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WASHINGTON - When a 1991 cholera outbreak that killed thousands in Peru was traced to plankton blooms fueled by warmer-than-usual coastal waters, linking epidemics to climate change was a new idea.

Now, scientists say, it is a near-certainty that global warming will drive significant increases in waterborne diseases around the world.

Rainfalls will be heavier, triggering sewage overflows, contaminating drinking water and endangering beachgoers. Higher lake and ocean temperatures will cause bacteria, parasites, and algal blooms to flourish. Warmer weather and heavier rains also will mean more mosquitoes, which can carry West Nile virus, malaria, and dengue fever. Fresh produce and shellfish are more likely to become contaminated.

Heavier rainfalls are one of the most agreed-upon effects of climate change. The frequency of intense rainfalls has increased notably in the Midwest, the Northeast, and Alaska, and the trend will accelerate, said the 2007 report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The consequences will be particularly severe in the 950 US cities and towns - including New York, Washington, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia - that have "combined sewer systems," archaic designs that carry storm water and sewage in the same pipes. During heavy rains, the systems often cannot handle the volume, and raw sewage spills into lakes or waterways, including drinking-water supplies.

On Sept. 13, during an unrelenting downpour, Chicago chose to prevent urban flooding by opening and releasing runoff containing raw sewage into Lake Michigan. About a month later, a University of Wisconsin study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine predicted an increase of 50 to 120 percent in such releases into the lake by the end of the century.

"One of the strongest indicators from climate models is more intense rains," said co-author Stephen Vavrus, director of the university's Center for Climatic Research. "They don't agree on everything, but they do agree on that. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so as we get more moisture in the air, when we do have a storm situation, you get more total rainfall."

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 (EPA). 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.

"Raw sewage got sucked back into the clean water supplies," said Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. "Cryptosporidium is a parasite that chlorine doesn't kill, so it escaped water treatment."

Combined sewer overflows can be eliminated by upgrading sewerage systems, but it is an expensive process.

"Here we are in a wealthy country with a very strong public health infrastructure," said Jonathan Patz, a professor of environmental studies and population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "But we need to realize it's not as strong as we thought it was, and water systems really need tremendous resources for upkeep in the face of climate change."

A report last week by the National Research Council concluded the EPA's storm-water program needs major overhauls to deal with increasing runoff, including a more integrated permitting system based on watersheds and a focus on land use by growing municipalities.

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