Health, Air and Environmental Justice: Needed in Detroit and Beyond

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome


I love going home to the “D”, as most Native Detroiters affectionately call Detroit, Michigan.  It’s no better feeling for me like when I’m driving back home, crossing the Ohio border, seeing the blue and white “Welcome to Michigan” sign.  Merging quickly onto Interstate 75, passing GM and Chrysler manufacturing facilities (that my grandparents and I have worked in) and crossing over into Detroit, with the preponderance of lights and smokestacks from the oil refinery, and the wastewater treatment plant that adds to the familiar stench of this stretch of the I-75 corridor and the neighborhood, and streets I’ve walked through many times.  Yes, I am home.

Each time I cross over the I75 corridor, I am reminded of the family and friends that are living in these overburdened, over-polluted areas. People that have been saddled by industry for years, and, by no fault of their own, are dealing with the health ramifications of air and water pollution.  I grew up on the west side of Detroit, later moving to the East side once I finished high school.  I decided to pursue chemical engineering, from being exposed to science through Detroit’s pre-college engineering programs and multiple science fairs – and worked in the chemical industry for several years. As a former environmental manager, my goal was to always protect my employees, the environment and surrounding community, and the property.  I know first-hand the importance of controlling emissions from these types of processes.  Depending on what’s coming out of the stack, the pipe or the ground, the impact can range from dangerous releases of gases that can flare and explode – or the repeated exposure, over a longer period of time, could manifest itself in the form of a chronic illness of some kind.  It might be just ‘stuff in the air’ to some, but, in cities like Detroit, and other places that have industrial footprints, it’s the combination of everything that makes some areas – particularly communities of color, and/or low income – more vulnerable and less healthy.

These communities, sometimes referred to as environmental justice communities, are dealing with other physical and social factors that amplify the cumulative burdens that continue to detract from the overall quality of life the residents all deserve, such as unhealthy housing (ridden with Pb based paint, mold), crime, unequal access to fresh foods, inadequate transportation, and inadequate resources to support much needed social services and educational systems…just to name a few.  So while local and state leaders are trying to work on a solution to these other concerns, that ‘dirty puff of air’ that many of us breathe in, every day, is only one piece of the pollution-puzzle that adds to the list of environmental and social stressors that dictate the health of those that live in 48217 and many other zip codes across our country.  We can do something about these ‘dirty puffs of air’. Simply letting your voice be heard is part of that solution.

It’s not fair that the little children that were cared for in our family’s Detroit-based day care centers are more likely to have asthma and related respiratory challenges than the children in her suburban day care centers; it’s not fair that my great aunt in her late 80s is suffering from asthma attacks and hospitalizations, having lived in Detroit most of her adult life; and it’s definitely not fair that members of my former church in southwest Detroit are concerned about the safety of living around these types of manufacturing facilities because of the explosions that have occurred due to unsafe emissions and flares.  And what is more disheartening is that there are no options for members of the community to go because they do not want to leave their homes and no one wants to buy them anyway.  When we look at the big picture, our environment – plus all of the other social factors that come into play – dictates our quality of life.

The way it stands now, some of the emissions from industry that occurs when a plant starts up, malfunctions or shuts down are not accounted for in the facility permit.  Most permitted facilities have levels of emissions they cannot exceed.  In the case for more than 30 states, industry is allowed to pollute beyond the permit.  In my experience, the start-up, shut-down or malfunction piece can cause the most harm.  So, the ‘least of these’, people in those communities right next to the facilities permitted to pollute, experience the most exposure. They are also dealing with multiple social stressors that can make the environments in which we live, play, work and pray even more ‘unhealthy’.

In addition to grassroots education and advocacy, we must also support more stringent policies that are being proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – like the upcoming Startup, Shutdown, Malfunction Rule (or SSM rule) that will work to eliminate some of those excess, undocumented emissions from facilities across the county that are allowed to emit, despite their permit limits.  These revisions are being proposed and out for public comment until Monday, May 13th.

While we know there are many social determinants of health that impact the health of our communities, we all deserve to breathe in clean air and be assured that the facilities that might be located near our homes are taking responsibility for their actions by running a safe process, with proper controls and, hopefully in the near future, will not be allowed to spit out unaccounted for emissions. Even though the deadline is Monday, May 13th, for our voices to be heard on the SSM rule, we need to continue to voice our concerns and hold industry accountable for not having the best emergency procedures and risk management practices in place. I encourage everyone to make their voices heard – to the City Council, the Mayor, the Governor and local county and city health agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency – about the importance of the SSM rule and other rules around clean air.

Tell the EPA to move ahead with an SSM safeguard that will help protect our communities from some of the toxins they face every day.