When Fiat Chrysler began expanding its east side auto plants last year, the construction noise vibrated homes, heavy trucks rumbled down the street and toxic particulate matter levels spiked.
The sum made Binh Phung’s home on neighboring Beniteau Street unbearable, he said, and with a two-month-old infant in the house, the family left to stay with relatives in Chicago until construction is complete later this year. However, they’ll return to face new dangers. The expanded plants will likely spew higher levels of VOCs, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide.
Phung says he’s “scared,” and for good reason — residents in the neighborhoods around FCA’s plants suffer a high number of serious asthma cases, and some suspect the high pollution levels are linked to a life expectancy of 67.8 years, which is among the state’s lowest.
Beniteau’s harsh, industrial landscape stands in stark contrast to West Bloomfield’s Chelsea Park subdivision, about 20 miles northwest, where huge, gleaming homes surrounded by towering trees sit on rolling hills. Instead of toxin pumping factories, the neighborhood’s backyards abut small ponds and woods.
Residents born here are expected to live nearly 87 years, and the life expectancy gap between the two neighborhoods tells a larger story: Those born in Oakland County on average live nearly 10 years longer than Detroiters, or 80.7 years to 71.4 years, respectively, according to 2015 US Census data compiled by the CDC and New York University’s City Health Dashboard. About 22 years separate the census tracts in each municipality with the highest and lowest expectancies.
Though a variety of socioeconomic issues are behind the gap, Detroit shoulders most of the region’s pollution burden, and experts say that likely take time off residents’ lives. While there’s no formula to quantify what kind of toll persistent and long-term exposure to multiple pollution sources takes, data shows that Detroiters suffer a higher rate of diseases often linked to pollution, and many experts say it’s a clear factor despite the challenge in measuring it.
Moreover, the pollution burden is inextricable from the other social factors at play, said Benjamin Spoer, manager of metrics and analytics for NYU’s City Health Dashboard.
“It’s impossible to gauge what pollutants do to a neighborhood, but certainly pollutants …. contribute to lower life expectancy in places where people are exposed to them,” he said. “But it’s also only one thing and there are broader social forces that concentrate negative exposures into these neighborhoods.”
Race and class are among the strongest indicators of who in major metropolitan regions will endure the highest levels of environmental stress, researchers say, and life expectancy gaps are widest in segregated areas, like mostly white, wealthy Oakland County and majority Black, low income Detroit.
“It’s kind of a function of your economic status,” said Subu Subramanian, a professor of population health and geography at Harvard. “That drives how sorting happens, and pollution is very highly patterned with all those other social structures.”
In Detroit, myriad sources fill the air with toxins, including an international trucking terminal, railyards, freeways, steel plants, a refinery, behemoth auto plants and hundreds of small industrial shops. The risk of lead exposure in drinking water, old homes’ paint, and industrial sites is high. Poor sanitation poses threats as many residents lack access to running water, and the aging housing stock exacerbates the problem. Meanwhile, the city is dotted with dozens of hazardous waste facilities.
An EPA index of 11 environmental stress indicators from hazardous waste site proximity to cancer risk from air toxins to diesel exposure puts Detroit in at least the 80th percentile for most measures, and the 90th for many. Oakland County generally ranks much lower.
State health data shows the rate of COPD and chronic bronchitis in Detroit was twice that of Oakland County between 2015-2017, and asthma rates are about 30% higher. Still, indirect measures like pollution and health data don’t provide proof of causation or impact on life expectancy, but those like Phung who live next door to industrial pollution sources say it’s all clearly connected.
“It’s killing us and I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I know I’m facing more pollution and facing more hazardous conditions, but what can I do? I’m just stuck.”
‘Structural inequities in the built environment’
When the encroaching factory spews toxic particulate matter at unsafe levels, air quality monitors hooked to Robert Shobe’s Beniteau Street house alert his phone, sending the 59-year-old and his two sons indoors where they close the windows and ensure an air purifier is running.
But the windows can’t keep out the toxins or constant noise, he said, and the family has struggled with COPD, bronchitis and cancer. The issues likely will only get worse — the new section of the plant next to Shobe’s house isn’t even fully running yet.
He said he wants to move, but the market for homes abutting an FCA paint plant isn’t good, and he doesn’t have enough savings to buy a second home.
“I would like to get out of here but I’m disabled and on a fixed income,” he said. “But I never planned on selling. I’ve got a kid who grew up here, and this is where I chose to come and stay.”
The per capita income in Shobe’s census tract is about $13,000, and many don’t have the means to move, highlighting how racial and class segregation feeds into the problem. People who have more money, more education, higher-paying jobs and access to more resources tend to live together, and further away from pollution sources, Spoer said.
“People who have a lot of social determinants of health that lead to longer life expectancy live in similar or the same neighborhoods — the wealthy part of town — and that has a pretty clear social gradient of health,” he said. “The flipside of that is people who have social determinants of health issues that lead to lower life expectancy are segregated into specific neighborhoods.”
That’s achieved by practices like redlining and other policies that force lower-income people to live near pollution sources.
A recent study showed how Black and Hispanic people were exposed to 21% and 11% more particulate matter than average, respectively. The contaminant comes from heavy industry like FCA, light-duty vehicles, and diesel trucks. By contrast, White people are exposed to 8% less particulate matter than average, and it’s estimated that the substance is responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths annually.
That underscores the growing environmental justice movement’s central argument that lower-income and minority communities are disproportionately burdened with pollution. Areas around factories also tend to be deprived of resources that could help mitigate some toxic effects of pollutants like particulate matter. Shobe described his neighborhood’s decades-long slide from a stable area to one pocked with vacant lots and houses, noting issues like a lack of recreation for kids and healthy food options.
An interplay and compounding effect exists in that type of resource deprivation, said Michele Cote, a molecular epidemiologist at Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors.
“It gets at the structural inequities in the built environment,” she said. “Aside from new plants and other similar issues, people are also dealing with the effects of things like living in food deserts, and access to fruits and vegetables that could counteract some of the negative effects of environmental exposures.”
‘A consistent and sustained voice’
In late April, Shobe took his concerns over pollution and property value to a virtual neighborhood meeting hosted by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and asked for the city to buy out Beniteau residents who now had FCA as a next-door neighbor.
The mayor did not share Shobe’s concerns: “What we’ve done already has been remarkable,” Duggan told Shobe. “When you one day sell the house for a good price just send me a note to say that I wasn’t so bad.”
Beniteau residents characterized the comment as “arrogant,” and it highlighted another issue: Lower-income residents often lack the political clout to protect their community from projects that will expose them to toxic pollution.
“If they came into my backyard to create an environmental disaster, then a whole load of people would start shouting and it would be front-page news,” Subramanian said. “But highly depressed communities usually lack a consistent and sustained voice, and I almost feel that it’s the social circumstances that create these situations.”
Beniteau Street residents have been better organized than many neighborhoods in similar situations, but still have little to show for it. A community benefits package netted some residents $15,000, but they say that’s not nearly enough to protect themselves from intense air pollution.
Meanwhile, state regulators have been little help. Residents teamed up with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to oppose air quality permits that would allow FCA to increase pollution, request the state to order FCA to install better pollution controls, and request a study looking at how the accumulation of FCA’s emissions and nearby pollution would impact residents’ health.
State regulators issued several permits and are still considering another. The state also claimed it didn’t have authority to order the study, and it didn’t require FCA to install better pollution controls.
Moreover, when the increased emissions from FCA’s Detroit plant violated Environmental Protection Agency regional air quality standards, the company announced it would get in compliance by lowering emissions at a plant in a largely white, suburban plant. Some Beniteau residents labeled the move “textbook environmental racism,” and see regional leaders as sacrificing their well-being for FCA’s good.
“We are being ignored by the politicians who are looking at their own interest and allowing this expansion,” Phung said. “We’re not wealthy. We’re poor people, so now the plant has expanded right to our front porch.”