Water-Related Illnesses and Climate Change

Climate change is increasing precipitation and snowmelt in late winter and early spring, increasing run-off and flood risk. Increased precipitation, heavy rainfall, and flooding are linked to outbreaks of waterborne disease. Exposure to pathogens like norovirus, rotovirus, adenovirus, Salmonella, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and Giardia are expected to increase. Increased run-off may expose more people to contaminants like heavy metals, herbicides, and pesticides as they move into freshwater systems used for drinking and recreation. As flood risk increases, so does the risk of storm surges that can contaminate water and food supplies, especially when storms hit aging water and sewage treatment facilities. Droughts can also pose problems with water treatment by increasing concentrations of pathogens in effluent (discharged sewage).

Wastewater Lagoon
Waste-water treatment lagoons like the ones near Browning could be impacted by an increase in storms caused by climate change. Storms can increase risk of illnesses, such as camphylobacter, caused by contamination.  Photo from Google Maps.

Climate change is also predicted to increase harmful algal blooms. Blue-green algae called cyanobacteria produce neurotoxins, which are poison to people and animals. Harmful algal blooms can occur in standing bodies of water that are exposed to the sun, including lakes, reservoirs, stockponds, and ditches.

water-2871039_1920
The Blackfeet Environmental Office has observed an overall increase in algal blooms in recent years, an increase attributed, in part, to a warming climate.

Who is most at risk?

People who already struggle to access clean water and sewer infrastructure will be more at risk. People who are at higher risk of becoming sick from contaminated drinking water also include children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems. Contaminated recreational water can be particularly risky for children because they swallow more water than adults while swimming, making them particularly vulnerable to impacts from Cryptosporidium and Giardia exposure.

Goose island
Contaminated recreational water is dangerous because parasites such as cryptosporidium and giardia are invisible. Children and dogs can become ill from swallowing water while playing or swimming.  Photo by Kim Paul.

How can we adapt?

  • Monitor water quality, especially after high levels of precipitation.
  • Uphold high drinking water standards and practices.
  • Issue advisories, and possibly close recreation areas, if water contamination is suspected or confirmed.
  • Issue advisory messages about water quality and protective practices like boiling water, as appropriate.
  • Keep drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure in top condition, and prioritize replacing aging infrastructure.
  • Restore and protect wetlands to reduce impacts from high precipitation events.

Learn about climate change as a health opportunity.


Some of the content found on this page is summarized from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States“, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ “A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change“, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “When Every Drop Counts” to briefly describe some of the possible health outcomes that are most relevant to Blackfeet Country. This page does not include all possible health impacts and outcomes, nor does it include all possible risks and responses.

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