Elena Grossman helps local health departments connect climate change dots in Illinois

Elena Grossman gives a presentation at a 2015 strategic planning session with the Jackson County public health department. Each county public health department has different issues to contend with, depending on the climate change event(s) affecting their towns and cities. (Photo courtesy of Elena Grossman)

By Natalie Eilbert
Medill Reports

In August, the heavy downpours filled houses with four feet of river water, though this happens every summer now in Peoria. Heat-stressed illnesses drove more people to a local hospital than capacity allowed in Jackson County. This past February, Kendall County collected more than  30 disease-carrying ticks, an unseasonable time for ticks and mosquitoes.

Each event marks a new dot on the Illinois climate map. And at this critical point in the climate change discussion, dots need to be connected— fast.

Elena Grossman is the program director at BRACE Illinois, a Centers of Disease Control and Prevention-funded project that studies the public health impacts associated with climate change and supports communities to better prepare for the climate concerns specific to Illinois: air quality degradation, increased flooding, heat stress, poorer respiratory health and vector-borne diseases. BRACE stands for Building Resilience Against Climate Events. Grossman, with her background in public health and community health sciences, uses environmental data and tool kits to fortify communities with the most strategic health plans.

But before Grossman could help others understand the data of a changing planet, she first had to piece together evidence from her own time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala and then as a paralegal working with migrant farmers in Florida—climates that, while very different from Illinois, presented grim yet familiar cycles.

“Your physical health determines your ability to work and eat. In Guatemala, they’re primarily subsistence farmers. They depend on their ability to work in order to feed themselves and their families. And then the majority of workers [in Florida] were from Mexico… you’re paid for how much you can pick up,” Grossman said.

While so much depended on farm workers preserving their physical health, if the environment became erratic and unreliable, so too did the crops. Persistent drought has plagued Guatemala and Central America at large on and off for years, the region commonly referred to as the Dry Corridor, Grossman said. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2.2 million people in the region are without the crops they depend on.

“You’re hearing these stories of a number of people who are leaving [Central America], because they literally don’t have enough food. And the same is true with migrant farmworkers—their work is dependent on the crop. And if you don’t have reliable weather—we’ve seen a number of years, whether it’s the forest fires in California, and in the Midwest, it’s been the floods—it can be horrendous across multiple states,” Grossman said.

But no crop failure is created equal. Grossman looked to the Midwest’s unprecedented rains and heavy flooding in 2019, which resulted in Illinois’s lowest corn-planting progress on USDA record. Only 83% of corn crops could be planted. Compounding the loss, an early frost that year left many more fields unharvested. In previous years, farmers planted 99% of their corn crop. 

Whether we’re speaking of food shortages for subsistence agriculture or commercial farm declines in the United States, this combination of physical health and the environment’s health propelled Grossman into public health in order to boldly intersect her areas of expertise with climate change.

“Our physical health is critical, and what influences our physical health. Our environment’s health is critical, and what influences our environment’s health,” Grossman said.

This infographic by BRACE demonstrates the relationship between climate change and health in Illinois. Grossman works with local health departments to determine what environmental issues might be responsible for upticks in certain health conditions. (BRACE Illinois/Used with permission)

Dr. Sam Dorevitch started out as Grossman’s boss at BRACE Illinois. In fact, he hired her. But Grossman’s expertise and her easygoing charm and humor combined the perfect alchemy for her field. Eventually, Dorevitch understood her potential as a communicator, strategist and boss. Their roles reversed. Grossman worked with the various health departments of Illinois, the CDC and partners in Chicago “better than I ever could,” Dorevitch said.

Dorevitch said that Grossman was a central actor in their idea for what to do with the CDC grant. They wanted to work with local health departments toward “normalizing climate change as a topic of conversation that health providers and health care and public health professionals [could] engage in with their communities,” Dorevitch said.

Honing her ability to communicate early, Grossman received her bachelor’s degree in international relations and Spanish from Franklin & Marshall College, a small liberal arts school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Between 2001 and 2009, Grossman would find her raison d’être in Central America, Florida and, eventually, Chicago, which has remained her home base. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, she pursued a master of science in public health, community health sciences and global health.

Back when a pandemic didn’t encumber travel, Grossman kept to a non-stop schedule of visiting local health departments, and collaborating on the correct vision for the project. Depending on where she went, the vision changed to accommodate county-specific matters like flooding and air quality concerns. She provided these communities with support, monitoring, tool kits and technical expertise—resources that many rural counties would not otherwise have at their disposal.

Margaret Eaglin, a senior epidemiologist specializing in food- and water-borne diseases with the Chicago Department of Public Health, has worked with Grossman since 2014 after Dorevitch, Grossman’s then-boss, connected them. Eaglin had been at work on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Healthy Chicago 2.0, which included discussions of environmental health and, possibly, climate change.

By the time they had concluded their work on Healthy Chicago 2.0, Grossman had successfully helped Eaglin and her team develop and document the health effects of climate change, with a mind toward mitigation. In the process, they became great friends as well as coworkers and co-teachers on future projects that combine public health and climate change.

“I’m looking forward to future opportunities to work with her. We’re both climate change activists, but she’s in the field getting paid to do that. I see her as a resource and know I can always turn to her and ask ‘What do I need to learn?’” Eaglin said.

For Grossman, who started by observing the hardships suffered by Guatemalan subsistence farmers and Florida’s migrant workers and then developed the tools and expertise for climate preparedness and environmental health, every moment she works with other people is a teaching opportunity.

“[Climate change] has impacts in every single aspect of public health programs. It cuts through every single one of them,” Grossman said.

“So if you’re addressing climate change at its root, you’re addressing a lot of injustices—you’re going to address racial injustices, environmental injustices, health injustices. And I think that’s critical in making sure everybody has as many opportunities as possible to stay healthy.”

Natalie Eilbert is a health, science and environmental reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalie_eilbert.