Keeping our heads and homes above water: flooding and health in Detroit

Peter Larson

Groundcover contributor

Water is essential to human life, but water can also be a hazard to human health. Climate change has led to ever more unpredictable and intense weather events. With more than 80 severe weather warnings in Southeast Michigan this year, this summer is one of the most unusual in Michigan’s history.

Climate change and severe weather events impact everyone, but residents of Detroit are at incredible risk for severe impacts from intense weather and rainfall events. Large amounts of water in a short amount of time challenge Detroit’s aging water infrastructure to divert waters away from the City and into the river.

Detroit has a combined sewer outflow system. That is, water runoff (water that hits the ground from rains) and sewage are diverted to a wastewater treatment plant and then into the Detroit River, through the same pipes and infrastructure. An intense weather event overburdens that system so that water, industrial runoff and sewage either get backed up into the City or directly into the Detroit River.

This presents incredible challenges to the City. Effluent and sewage back up into the streets — and worse yet into people’s homes — through basement drains. During an intense rainfall event, it is not uncommon to hear reports of people having raw sewage in their basements.

Further complicating this situation is the poor state of Detroit’s housing. Structures in Detroit are overwhelmingly old. Detroit’s low income population has difficulty keeping up with necessary repairs to aging houses, which require roof, window and basement upgrades. This means that some people live with open holes in the roof, open spaces around windows and cracks in basement walls, all of which allow water to enter the home, even during a normal rainfall.

We also found that the greatest determinants of flooding were housing conditions. People with holes in the roof or cracks in the basement were more likely to experience flooding. We also found the renters were at very high risk for flooding, implying that landlords could be part of the solution to solving this dire problem.

These two factors, an overburdened sewage and runoff system and inadequate housing, present a dual challenge to the residents of Detroit. Catastrophic events like we saw in 2014 and in June 2021 led to a massive inundation of water that upended lives and threatened health. But normal rainfall events create a constant level of water and moisture in the home which allows molds and microbes to thrive.

Molds and microbes in the home present a major public health challenge. Constant exposure to mold has been associated with the development of asthma and respiratory problems.

The percentage of people with asthma in Detroit is double that of the State of Michigan, and is one of the highest in the country. Asthma hospitalizations in Detroit are almost 3.7 times that of Michigan as a whole. Black males are more likely to have and be hospitalized for asthma than any other group in Michigan.

In our recent study with partners from the University of Michigan, U-M Dearborn and Wayne State University, we found that more than 65% of Detroiters experienced basement flooding, either as a result of rainfall or sewer backups. We also found that people with asthma were more likely to live in a home that experiences flooding. We also found that, when controlling for neighborhood factors such as elevation and socio-economics — increasing percentages of African American residents are predictive of flooding.

We found that flooding impacts all Detroit residents and that these impacts are felt every day. However, as a whole, these impacts are much higher than the rest of the state, and the low income nature of Detroit means that the poorest and most marginalized of our State’s population are at the highest risk for not only flooding, but also for severe health conditions like asthma.

Every person has a right to a safe and healthy place to live. Right now, most Detroiters do not have access to safe and healthy living environments. We need to change this situation.

We need to create programs that treat housing conditions like any other kind of public health problem. Health begins at home. Providing money to improve the living spaces of Detroiters could go a long way to improving baseline health, prevent serious conditions like asthma and lift up people’s lives to create a more equitable and just world.

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