Natural Environment

Natural Environment

Climate Change: “We Need to Prepare”

Faced with increasing risks of intense storms, heat stress, clean water availability, and economic hardship, municipal leaders across the country are seeking high-quality, location-specific analyses to help plan for climate change impacts. That’s the focus of a new $1.2 million UM research project called the Great Lakes Adaptation Assessment for Cities. Led by the UM Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute and supported by The Kresge Foundation, the three-year project seeks to strengthen the science and decision-making necessary for more effective urban climate adaptation in the Great Lakes region, in both Canada and the U.S.

“Every day, city administrators, land-use planners, mayors, and other key decision-makers face questions about to how to better prepare for, and deal with, the impacts of climate change in our region,” says Don Scavia, director of the Graham Institute and co–principal investigator on the project. “This project will generate datasets, tools, and a network of stakeholders that will be extremely useful for decision-makers in private and government sectors.”

“We don’t completely know what consequences of climate change for Michigan are, so planning is a challenge,” says SPH Associate Professor Marie O’Neill, who is involved with the project. “But even if we stop polluting today, climate change is here, and we need to prepare locally and statewide for what’s inevitable—more heat waves, more rainfall and flooding, more drought and food-supply issues.” —Source: UM News Services Aug. 2011 release

Extreme Heat Research at SPH:

  • SPH students Robert Kononowech, Tess Gallagher, and Adesuwa Ogbomo are collaborating on a project with the Michigan Department of Community Health to help the state adapt to the heat-related health impacts of climate change. Funded by the CDC’s Climate-ready States and Cities Initiative, the project focuses in part on the role that air pollution plays in climate change.
  • In a CDC–funded study, SPH Associate Professor Marie O’Neill is studying the complex interplay of heat waves, social disparities, and health in four U.S. cities, including Detroit. O’Neill hopes her work will lead to more effective strategies for preparing, warning, and protecting the urban public from the dangers of extreme heat.
  • With funding from the UM Center for Risk Science, SPH doctoral student Natalie Sampson is helping to evaluate Detroit’s efforts to reduce heat-associated risks and to build sustainable local strategies for coping with climate change. As Sampson notes, “Heat is the leading cause of death among all natural disasters in the U.S., and rates are expected to increase with the convergence of climate change, continued urbanization, and aging populations.”
  • SPH alumna Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Ph.D. ’11, recently published a study on the methods used by Detroit residents to keep cool in extreme heat. Her work has implications for policy decisions related to climate change, including housing design and access to health care for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and people with diabetes.

In the Air

Researchers in the UM Air Quality Lab are working to diminish the health impact of airborne pollutants. The lab’s Michigan-specific projects include:

  • An investigation of the contribution of atmospheric deposition to the loading of PCBs, mercury, and cadmium in Detroit’s wastewater
  • Studies to examine the potential health effects of ambient air pollutants on children with asthma and adults with cardiovascular disease
  • Joint studies with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality aimed at:
    • Better understanding the spatial patterns of urban air toxics across southeast Michigan
    • Assessing the emission sources, transport, and atmospheric deposition of mercury across Michigan and the Great Lakes
    • Atmospheric deposition modeling in support of the state’s mercury Total Maximum Daily Load project

In the Groundwater

In an NIH–funded study of groundwater in 11 counties in southeastern Michigan, SPH researchers Jerome Nriagu, Mark Wilson, and David Schottenfeld have found a “very weak association” between arsenic contamination in drinking water and heightened levels of bladder cancer. Arsenic occurs naturally in the groundwater in these counties. Researchers hope to conduct follow-up studies to determine the risk to human health.

In the lakes

SPH Professor Stuart Batterman, who’s been tracking changes in the so-called “legacy” pesticides that find their way into Great Lakes fish, says the levels of many of these chemicals have been decreasing. After examining archival records dating back as far as 40 years, Batterman and his research team have documented a significant drop in levels of DDT and chemicals associated with flame retardants. “We’re seeing the effect of restricting or banning these products,” he says. “The bad thing is that some of these chemicals are being replaced with others, which we don’t yet fully understand.” He suggests consulting Michigan’s Fish Advisory ( if you frequently eat Great Lakes fish.

Dioxin Contamination in Mid-Michigan

Since 2004, a UM SPH research team led by Professors David Garabrant and Al Franzblau has been studying dioxin contamination in the soil in the city of Midland, Michigan, and in the Tittabawassee River flood plain between Midland and Saginaw. There is ongoing concern that dioxins—toxic chemicals mostly produced as unwanted byproducts of some types of industrial activities and by combustion—may be linked to cancer, developmental effects, and disruption of the endocrine system.

When the SPH study began, many residents in the Midland area had filed lawsuits against the Dow Chemical Co., which was widely thought to have caused the region’s elevated dioxin levels. Communities were divided, often bitterly, and the SPH research team made community outreach and communication a top priority.

The study ultimately revealed that living on contaminated soil has no impact on human exposure, unless, as Franzblau notes, “you regularly consume products from animals raised on contaminated soil.” The results have eased the worries of hundreds of homeowners and contributed to a better scientific foundation for the state’s environmental policies. The study has also yielded 25 papers and hundreds of presentations around the world and has had a global impact on scientific inquiry, Franzblau says. “We’ve brought a better level of scientific design to the epidemiology studies of dioxins in communities, and over the years, we’ve seen investigators in other countries adopt similar approaches to ours.” The study concludes in December 2012.

Dioxins: What Do People Know?

SPH researchers Brian Zikmund-Fisher and Al Franzblau are now trying to find out what residents of Midland and the Tittabawassee River flood plain—people “who’ve spent decades being bombarded with information about dioxins from all sorts of sources,” Franzblau says—have actually learned about dioxin. The follow-up study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, involves over 1,000 participants and compares people who took part in the original SPH exposure- assessment study with other residents from the same areas.

“It’s unprecedented,” says Zikmund-Fisher, “to go beyond measuring community beliefs to identifying exactly what facts people already know about contaminants, and what specific misunderstandings they have.”By exploring residents’ “mental models” of dioxins in this way, the researchers hope to contribute to the design of better risk communications.

Pleasant Peninsulas

Michigan took shape between 13,000 and 12,000 BCE, when melting glacial ice formed what we now know as the Great Lakes and the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Water literally defines this state, whose name, from the Algonquian mishigamaa, means “large water” or “large lake,” and whose motto reads: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” No matter where you are in Michigan, you’re within 85 miles of one of the Great Lakes and six miles of an inland lake or stream. But water isn’t everything. Trees—among them sugar maples, white pines, and nearly 18 percent of the nation’s Christmas trees—blanket huge segments of the Lower Peninsula and a whopping 90 percent of the Upper Peninsula. More than 500 soil types, including nearly a million acres of Kalkaska sand, provide the foundation for fruit trees and other crops. Mountains, waterfalls, dunes, prairies, wetlands, islands, marshes, swamps, and beaches: they’re all here, part of the breathtaking natural environment of the nation’s 26th state.

Michigan has:

  • 57,022 square miles of land area (16,439 in the Upper Peninsula)
  • 1,194 square miles of inland waters
  • More than 11,000 inland lakes
  • 36,000 miles of streams
  • 38,575 square miles of Great Lakes water area
  • 3,126 miles of Great Lakes shoreline (more freshwater coastline than any other political subdivision in the world)
  • 19,000,000 acres of forest cover
  • 500 and more different types of soil
  • 2 peninsulas

—Source: Michigan Department of Transportation