Melvindale high school student Samantha Tapia-Muñoz was shocked to learn how much air pollution she was breathing every day.
“I was walking around my house in Melvindale, and the air pollution was at 66 AQI,” said Tapia-Muñoz, referring to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index. A measurement of 66 means “moderate” — with some risk to potentially sensitive groups.
Tapia-Muñoz was one of a small group of students who participated in the University of Michigan Dearborn’s Environmental Health Research-to-Action Academy (EHRA) program this past summer. Each student participant was given an air monitor to measure the amount of pollution they are exposed to in their daily lives. The monitors measure air quality and display results on the Flow mobile app.
Tapia-Muñoz says she is upset that her school’s curriculum doesn’t teach about the harmful effects of local air pollution, and believes her peers need to know about it. “I learned through the EHRA program that air pollution can cause miscarriages and infertility and we never learned that in school,” she said.
The EHRA program started in 2018 as a way to raise awareness about local environmental justice issues amongst youth. The program works with 16 to 18-year-olds to supplement high school curriculums, which often don’t include topics such as environmental health and policy advocacy. It’s now grown into a group of over 60 alumni, many of whom are highly motivated to continue fighting for clean air and water in their communities.
The project builds on decades of community organizing around environmental exposures in the south end Dearborn, Detroit, and Melvindale which face some of the highest rates of pollution in Michigan.
“Our goal is to provide hands-on training opportunities for youth in Metro Detroit. We focus on fundamental knowledge and practical skills in air pollution, environmental justice, community science, storytelling, plain language, and policy advocacy,” said Dr. Carmel Price, a professor at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a cofounder of EHRA along with Dr. Natalie Sampson and other community members. Plain language aims to present information in a clear, concise manner that is easily understandable.
Dr. Price also said the academy gives youth the tools to conduct “citizen science. Tools such as the handheld air monitors are vital in giving students an understanding of the levels of pollution in their communities. Amani Abuelenain, an undergraduate student researcher, EHRA team member and mentee of Dr. Sampson also says her high school curriculum lacked education about the pollution in their community. “I went to Dearborn High and I didn’t know anything about air pollution. I now know there is such a disparity in air quality in the state of Michigan alone.”
Zeina Reda, a University of Michigan junior and alum of the academy who is now an EHRA youth coordinator for local 16 to 18-year-olds, said the academy opened her eyes to the injustices her and those around her in Dearborn face due to pollution.
“I didn’t really understand there was a big issue of pollution in Dearborn because I didn’t live by any factories,” Reda said. “I learned not only that pollution was a concern, but I was given the tools to address the concerns.” Reda said her experiences as a youth participant inspired her to continue her involvement. “I felt like this should now be a part of my life..”
Though the group tends to focus on air pollution, students in this year’s virtual class had an increased interest in water following the major flooding events of June and July. “We want this to be youth-driven. The youth led us to water this year,” said Dr. Price.
Students like Ronny Adbullah did research and presentations on the pollution in the Rouge River. The 127-mile river is considered among the most polluted in Michigan and caught fire due to pollution in 1969. “I had no idea the Rouge River was so polluted,” said Abdullah.
Alumni of the program say that they got a better understanding of air pollution’s effects through their involvement in the academy.
“I run cross country at my high school in Dearborn and I need my inhaler to run. My brothers and I all have asthma. There are no classes or clubs at school addressing the pollution we have to live around and the ways in which it impacts us,” said Abdullah.
Abuelenain said she also has experiences with the adverse effects of air pollution.
“Some of my family has asthma and trouble breathing. They clean and clean their house and cannot get rid of the black soot,” she said.
The EHRA academy goes a step beyond educating local youth, giving them the tools and confidence to advocate for change. Students have given presentations to local schools, mosques, and to elected officials including Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
“I presented about air pollution in plain language at Salina Intermediate School,” said Reda. “Bringing the issue to the community in speaking engagements is an eye-opener for everyone. The storytelling makes people aware and is really effective in spreading the word.”
Students and alumni of the EHRA academy say that though they were saddened and disappointed to learn about the devastating realities of air and water pollution in the places where they live, work, and attend school, they feel empowered to be change-makers for environmental justice.
“I will be using what I learned in my life for years to come. The EHRA academy has made me want to focus on environmental justice in my future career,” said Tapia-Muñoz.
The EHRA program is supported by its Steering Committee, the Commission on Middle Eastern American-Affairs, the Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments, Ecology Center, and other partners who lead academy sessions, mentor youth, and create opportunities for the youth after the academy ends.
This story was produced with support from the Damon J. Keith Center at Wayne State University and the Porter Family Foundation.
Planet Detroit’s Solving Lead &Asthma in Detroit series is underwritten, in part, by the Erb Family Foundation.