MILWAUKEE — Our health doesn’t just depend on who we are and what we do. Where we live also makes a big difference — the air we breathe, the water we drink, even the streets we walk on.

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What You Need To Know

  • The latest DHS environmental health profiles found Milwaukee County had twice the average rate of asthma-related ER visit
  • Milwaukee County also saw higher rates of childhood lead poisoning and fatal car accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists
  • The urban environment and racial disparities could play a role in Milwaukee’s health risks
  • The county faces greater-than-average risks from climate change, with more days of extreme heat and extreme precipitation

Recent reports from the Wisconsin Environmental Public Health Tracking program unpack how that difference shows up across the state. And for Milwaukee County, some of the findings point to major health challenges — including higher rates of asthma, greater risks from climate change and more fatal crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists.

The tracking team — a branch of the state Department of Health Services — released its latest round of environmental health profiles last month, looking at how each county stacks up against the state average.

“By having a snapshot of the data, what we really want is for organizations to get a feel for what’s happening in their community related to environmental health,” said Connie Bell, a health educator with the tracking team. “They can see the areas of environmental health that they need to focus on, and really dig in and see what’s going on.”

According to the Milwaukee County report, asthma rates in the county were much higher than in Wisconsin as a whole.

Milwaukee County saw 72.5 asthma-related ER visits per 10,000 residents, according to the report. That’s more than double the statewide rate of 33 visits per 10,000 people.

Rates of COPD — a group of lung diseases often caused by smoking — were also elevated in the county. Milwaukee saw a 40% higher rate of COPD-related ER visits compared to the state, according to the report.

It’s hard to say for sure why these numbers are higher in Milwaukee, since the profiles aren’t designed to figure out cause and effect, said Jenny Camponeschi, program manager for the environmental public health tracking program. But the researchers have some guesses as to “why the data might be showing up as they are,” she said.

Racial disparities may be one factor, said Elaina Andreychak, an epidemiologist on the tracking team.

In Wisconsin and beyond, people of color — and especially Black communities — tend to face higher rates of health issues, like asthma and COPD. Since Milwaukee has a more diverse racial makeup than other counties in Wisconsin, those disparities may be more prominent, Andreychak said.

Also, Milwaukee County — and especially the city of Milwaukee — just look a lot different from the rest of the state, she pointed out.

“What’s interesting about juxtaposing Milwaukee County with the whole state of Wisconsin is, obviously Milwaukee is a lot more urban than most of the rest of Wisconsin,” Andreychak said. “So that’s partially why we see larger differences in some numbers.”

Since air pollution and poor air quality can bring on asthma symptoms, Milwaukee’s urban setting could be a factor in the higher asthma rates, she said.

Another area where the urban environment probably came into play: Motor vehicle-related fatalities. In Milwaukee County, almost 50% of motor vehicle-related fatalities involved pedestrians or cyclists, according to the profile. Across the state, that rate was 16%.

With more people walking or biking around, it makes sense that a city setting would see more crashes involving bikers and pedestrians, Andreychak said. But the measure really highlights the fact that, especially in Milwaukee, there’s a need to make communities more walkable, Camponeschi said.

“We need ways for people to walk and bike safely in the community, where they’re not going to be in a car accident and either get injured or die,” Camponeschi said.

Compared to the rest of Wisconsin, Milwaukee County saw higher rates of childhood-lead poisoning as well. In the county, 6.7% of children who got tested were at or above the CDC’s benchmark for elevated blood lead levels — versus 3.7% of tested children statewide.

Milwaukee has a lot of older homes built before 1978, when the U.S. banned lead-based paints, so kids might be more likely to be exposed to lead paint, Bell said. Lead poisoning has long been a challenge for Milwaukee, and some residents have called for faster removal of lead pipelines to prevent drinking-water exposure.

In the meantime, Andreychak said it’s important to keep up testing levels — which have been on the decline in recent years — to make sure kids are safe.

“Our number of childhood lead poisoning tests is decreasing over time, kind of overall the state of Wisconsin, but also in Milwaukee,” Andreychak said. “That’s not something that we’d like to see.”

Milwaukee County did fare better than average on some measures. Its rate of Lyme disease was 80% lower than the statewide rate, and its rate of nitrate contamination in water was 92% lower than the state average. These measures tended to be higher in more forested or rural parts of the state.

Bell said the tracking team’s goal is to produce data that will be “actionable” for local groups. That means looking toward the future as well as seeing what’s happening now — as the profiles offered predictions of how climate change could affect counties’ health in the coming decades.

As an urban center, Milwaukee County could face even hotter weather compared to other parts of the state, Bell said. By 2080, the county could see 49 days of extreme heat and six days with extreme precipitation, according to projections included in the profile.

“This really gives us a heads up of, ‘How do we need to plan for an increased number of hotter days and an increased amount of flooding?’” Bell said. “Being proactive in planning, instead of reactive.”

For communities across Wisconsin, the health profiles can serve as a way to check in and figure out what changes can be made, Camponeschi said. The environmental public health program offers mini-grants so that local groups can take on short-term projects on different health topics.

In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, Camponeschi said many people may still be thinking more about infectious disease than other health factors. But she’s hopeful that spotlight can also bring more attention to other pieces of the public health puzzle.

“One of the good things about the COVID pandemic is that it has raised public health to the forefront,” Camponeschi said. “Now that we have the platform of public health, we can raise some of these other topics up.”

(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)

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