Surili Sutaria PatelThis is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes meant to raise awareness of and mobilize action on the health impacts of climate change. August is Water Quality month. Here, APHA’s Surili Sutaria Patel, MS, senior program manager for environmental health with the Center for Public Health Policy, introduces the theme with a discussion of the water-related public health consequences of climate change. 

Access to clean water is a fundamental human right, but climate change and an aging infrastructure jeopardize the quality and safety of our water in the US. Every year, as many as 900,000 people in the US fall ill, and 900 die, from waterborne diseases. Waterborne illnesses cause an estimated 40,000 hospitalizations annually at a cost of $970 million.

Climate change effects
Approximately 77 percent of fresh water consumed in the US is derived from surface waters. As the earth’s temperature rises, surface water temperatures in reservoirs, lakes and streams also rise. This creates a more hospitable environment for some harmful algae blooms and the growth of other waterborne pathogens.

Warmer waters also evaporate more quickly into the air, which sets the stage for heavier rainfall and flooding. Flood waters can contain a variety of harmful contaminants—like insecticides, fertilizers, microbes, etc.—and can overwhelm drainage or wastewater treatment systems. This increases the risk of exposure to bacteria, parasites and other harmful pollutants in the water we drink, as well as in the crops, fish and other food we eat.

The extreme weather events of climate change exacerbate the problems. They do not account for race, income, gender or age before striking. Yet, vulnerable populations—including tribal and low-income communities and those of color, the elderly, young children and those with chronic illnesses—bear the greatest burden of injury, disease and death related to climate change. Similarly, socioeconomically disadvantaged communities are not always able to recover quickly, or recover at all, in the wake of environmental disasters.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina precipitated massive flooding in New Orleans, Louisiana, damaging or destroying over 100,000 homes and causing $108 billion in total damage. In October 2012, Super Storm Sandy devastated coastal New Jersey, causing major infrastructure damage, power outages, and disruption to transportation services totaling over $37 billion in damage. Severe weather events such as these are predicted to increase in frequency in the coming years, due to climate change.

Environmental health response
When a storm causes such immense damage to buildings and roads, as well as psychological and emotional stress, victims may be unaware of health risks associated with contaminated tap water or other environmental threats. Skilled environmental health professionals are tasked with responding to and monitoring compounded environmental threats in the immediate aftermath of an event and over time.

The well-trained, multidisciplinary environmental health workforce endeavors to maintain an environment conducive to human health. These professionals monitor water safety, conduct mosquito control activities, carry out syndromic surveillance and biomonitoring and engage in other critical activities. The work that these professionals perform is greatly realized at the community level, especially by those most vulnerable to harmful environmental exposures.

Water emergencies reflect the need for stringent water standards nationwide to protect communities from the health effects of contaminated water. APHA is committed to helping environmental health professionals uphold those standards. Its publication, “Standard Methods for the Examination of Water and Wastewater,” now in its 23rd edition, has been the most widely respected and globally utilized water examination manual for over a century. It reflects the latest developments in water analysis and emerging priorities in water safety.

To learn more—and to have your say—about “What’s in Your Water: the State of Water and Our Health,” join the APHA and Environmental Health Coalition’s Twitter Chat on Aug. 30. RSVP here, and use #SafeWater in your tweets, so users can easily search for what you and others are saying during the event. Follow @PublicHealth to learn more about this and other advocacy efforts to protect public health and the environment.