Every year, about 6.7 million people die due to the combined effects of ambient and household air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Ambient pollution refers to pollution outside the home and household air pollution refers to indoor air pollution.
Air quality measures how much pollution is present in our air. When the concentration of pollutants in the air increases, air quality decreases. The first-ever federal legislation involving air pollution in the United States happened 67 years ago with the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955.
Following additional legislation milestones in 1963 and 1967, the Clean Air Act of 1970 changed how the United States regulates air pollution. Amendments in 1977 and 1990 enhanced protections, controls and standards established in 1970 that are still in effect today.
Meet the people behind a community-based effort to monitor Detroit’s air
Read / listen to this story from our partners at Michigan Radio
Photo: Rev. Sharon Buttry and Mark Covington at the Georgia Street Community Collective on Detroit’s east side. Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Clean Air Act 1970
- Authorized the establishment of National Ambient Air Quality Standards
- Established requirements for State Implementation Plans to achieve National Ambient Air Quality Standards
- Authorized the establishment of New Source Performance Standards for new and modified stationary sources
- Authorized the establishment of National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants
- Increased enforcement authority
- Authorized requirements for control of motor vehicle emissions
(Source: Environmental Protection Agency)
By tracking pollutants in the air, we get a measure of the air’s quality. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses its Air Quality Index (AQI) to provide a daily, uniform forecast for air quality about national standards.
The AQI tracks the five major air pollutants: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (aka particulate matter such as PM2.5 and PM10), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Ozone and particle pollution are the most prevalent each day. The AQI assigns a different level of concern based on how much of the two are in the air, ranging from good to hazardous. The higher the reading, the more people are negatively affected.
Despite nearly 70 years of legislation in our country and abroad, however, WHO estimates at least 91 percent of the world’s population live in areas where air pollution levels exceed its guidelines.
Planet Detroit put together the following guide to help readers understand why people in our area are disproportionately affected by air pollution, how climate change will affect our air quality, and what actions can help effect change.
From automobiles and the factories that build them, to steel mills and coal-fired power plants, to junk yards, an oil refinery, highways, and the international border, there's no shortage of sources for toxins getting pumped into the air in metro Detroit.
Detroit's overall air quality got an "F" grade last year, according to annual findings from the American Lung Association via its 2022 State of the Air report. This report card grades Americans' exposure to ground-level ozone and particle pollution.
Although Detroit's year-round particle pollution levels have improved since last year's report, the city is still ranked 16th most polluted in that category. The report also found that Detroit's short-term spikes in particle pollution brought more unhealthy days than the year before. And, due to an increase in unhealthy days because of ozone pollution, the city moved from the 38th most polluted to the 24th.
Asthma is known to be triggered by poor air quality. Detroiters carry a disproportionately high asthma burden compared with the rest of the state.
Why? One answer, according to advocates, is environmental racism. Policies dating back to the 1930s, such as redlining that kept Black people from obtaining home loans and buying in certain neighborhoods, creating underserved communities that ended up bearing the brunt of polluting developments.
In the 1960s, for instance, construction of the Interstate-75 highway tore through Black and immigrant neighborhoods, destroying businesses and homes while bringing eight lanes of vehicles spewing pollutants into the air. And University of Michigan researchers found that DTE's coal-fired power plants are disproportionately located in communities of color and exact a high health cost on those communities due to the air pollution they create.
Tax breaks and cheap land attract industrial businesses, such as the sprawling Marathon Oil refinery that has continued to grow and now takes up 250 acres of space in what is oft-reported as Michigan's most polluted zip code, 48217. The refinery produces up to 140,000 barrels of oil daily, resulting in nearly 30 toxins spewing into the air, including nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide.
These emissions leave a putrid smell in the air and heighten the risk of cancer, liver disease, and respiratory conditions, especially asthma. Residents in many of these areas often lack sufficient resources to battle pollution and the resources to relocate.
"The levels of ozone and particle pollution that are seen in Detroit can harm the health of all of our residents, but particularly at risk are children, older adults, pregnant people, and those living with chronic disease," Ken Fletcher said in the Lung Association's report. Fletcher is the director of advocacy in Michigan and Ohio for the AMA.
Adult residents in Detroit experience asthma at rates 46 percent higher than the state as a whole. Asthma rates in children are now 14.6% for those living in Detroit and 8.4% for Michigan overall, according to a report by the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS). Detroit ranks 15th nationally on the list of "The Top 100 Most Challenging Places to Live with Asthma."
"Both ozone and particle pollution can cause premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm," Fletcher stated in the report. "Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer."
Worsening climate change increases the number of hot days we experience every year. On the hottest days, ground-level ozone pollution increases, acting as a blanket that helps trap other pollutants while also agitating respiratory symptoms and conditions, especially asthma.
Extreme heat sparks particularly dangerous conditions in areas like Detroit, where tree coverage is only at three percent in some areas. Sparse tree canopies help fuel the urban heat island effect that leads to increased temperatures in urban areas. Hotter temperatures lead to increased use of air conditioning units, which further pollute the air. In underserved communities, many residents can’t afford to have air, run air, and/or have aging power grids that can’t handle the energy needed to run them. You can view a map of heat in Detroit here.
Heatwaves can also bring damage from afar, from areas where extreme temperatures can lead to droughts and wildfires. Beyond the physical devastation and loss of life or goods, forest fires add more carbon dioxide and other dangerous chemicals into the air. That contaminated air then spreads to other areas and can cross state lines.
“We’re seeing particle pollution grades in big parts of the country increase due to all the wildfires,” Fletcher told Planet Detroit. “That air drifts and the particle pollution spreads to other states not even being impacted directly by the fire. So it impacts all of us.”
The first step in protecting yourself from air pollution is knowledge. Learn about air pollution and its health effects. Become familiar with industries in your neighborhood. Companies like Marathon Oil have repeated violations from the EPA. Find out about such occurrences and report them when possible. The state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) air quality division offers an online form to submit complaints for air quality violations.
You can also pay attention to weather alerts that warn about bad air quality days, such as ozone alert days when unhealthy ozone levels are predicted. Limit vigorous activity and exercise during those days, and if able, go or stay inside somewhere with cool air and a good filtration system.
Fletcher said that while some people may feel their individual actions may not make much of a difference, collectively, individuals can create change – starting with heeding ozone alert days. He said folks should avoid driving, mowing lawns and filling up their gas tanks on such days. Even backyard bonfires and personal charcoal grills negatively affect our air.
“Even wood in your firepit puts particle pollution into the air,” Fletcher said. “It’s definitely bad for people with asthma, COPD, and other conditions… We often hear from people with asthma that live next to people who have backyard fire pits, and it causes problems.”
Making changes inside the home also lowers risk. Many household items, appliances and activities can add particulate pollutants to the air, including cigarette smoke, harsh household cleaners, mold, dust mites, pollen, pet dander, wood-burning stoves or fireplaces, candles, incense and improper ventilation.
You can help combat indoor air pollutants by:
- Ventilating your home.
- Open windows so that bad air gets rotated outside
- But stay inside of the air quality is unhealthy -- check airnow.gov
- Avoid smoking indoors (or quit!)
- Use natural household cleaning products
- Speaking of clean, keep it that way: Dust and vacuum often, reduce clutter
- Wash bed coverings weekly in hot water
- Reduce indoor air moisture with a dehumidifier
- Fix leaky pipes and faucets that contribute to moisture, mold formation
- Use craft materials, such as paint, in well-ventilated areas
- Use carbon monoxide detectors
- Able to afford an air purifier? Make sure it’s a high-efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) or it could make the air worse
- Purchase an air quality monitor if possible
- Keep up on any health changes and get symptoms checked out
- Checking on the most vulnerable in your neighborhood and family
What community resources are available to help me protect myself and learn more about local air pollution?
Battling air pollution as an individual can feel overwhelming, especially when much of the change needs to happen at systemic levels. Many solutions, like installing air filters, require money, and many people can’t afford those solutions.
Here are some organizations you can get involved with or support who are working to combat air pollution and respiratory diseases:
- Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments
- Environmental Health Research-to-Action
- Ecology Center
- Eastside Community Network
- Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition
- Great Lake Environmental Law Center
- The Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center
- The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America - Michigan Chapter
And here are some tools to help you learn more about your local air quality:
- Learn about the enforcement and compliance history of regulated facilities in your area with this tool from the U.S. EPA
- Learn about how your area stacks up with EPA's EJScreen
- Look at live local air monitoring data
- Click here for Air Quality readings by typing in a zip code.
- Submit an air quality complaint and more here.
- Read air quality reporting from Planet Detroit
Dr. Natalie Sampson, an associate professor of public health at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, co-founded the Environmental Health Research-to-Action group at the University of Michigan Dearborn with Dr. Carmel Price, associate professor of sociology at UM-Dearborn, too, and community member Karima Alwishah. Sampson said that although local governments are often underfunded and lack resources to take steps to battle for public health and environmental justice, officials can still do more to help make change. And, she added, individuals can help hold those public officials accountable by attending meetings, asking questions and learning about zoning laws.
Sampson advises coming to community meetings armed with information about how issues are affecting your area. Information from equipment such as air quality monitors is helpful, but it’s not the only way to gather data. Residents can take note of increases in traffic on their streets, especially trucks, smells in the air, changes in their health during certain times, occurrences of coughing or headaches, and more. Knowledge equals power.
This Planet Detroit Climate Guide is supported by the Americana Foundation and the GM Foundation