Detroit Health Department slow to warn residents about wildfire smoke

With 500 fires burning across Canada, more bad air quality days in metro Detroit are possible.
Photo taken from the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center June 27, 2023, when Detroit’s air quality was among the worst in the world. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

As Detroit and Chicago vied for the worst air quality out of 90 major U.S. cities on the online IQ Air platform Tuesday, word from city public health authorities was slow in coming. 

The city’s health department issued a notification about the alert via a Facebook post at 10 a.m. Tuesday. But it wasn’t until Wednesday morning when the air reached the “hazardous” category that the Detroit Health Department issued a full press release at 9:13 am. At 10:52 a.m. an alert was sent via the city’s 365 alert system, after nine cumulative hours of “hazardous” air quality had passed. Chicago issued an air quality alert on its Health Alert Network Chicago Tuesday evening around 6 p.m. 

Acting Chief Public Health Officer Christina Floyd told Planet Detroit that the department issued the Facebook post after the state issued its alert. Then today, “we did in fact, send out the press release along with the 365 alert due to the prolonged air quality alert for today, as well as tomorrow,” Floyd said.

By the time the press release and 365 alert came, an entire day had passed when the air was in the “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” category according to the national Air Quality Index. The latter designation means widespread effects among the general population are expected, including trouble breathing, coughing, and chest pain. The city health department’s communication also came nearly 24 hours after the state of Michigan issued a statewide air quality alert – its first ever. 

In its press release advisory, the Detroit Health Department warned people to limit their time outdoors and refrain from any strenuous activities. For more vulnerable populations including those with heart or lung disease, older adults and children, it recommends wearing a mask and keeping windows and doors closed. These are consistent with state recommendations. Wayne County is under alert until midnight Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

“We are continually monitoring the situation and are in close contact with our partners at EGLE, the City’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, as well as the City’s Environmental division,” Floyd said in the release. “As conditions warrant, we will provide additional updates and guidance to help make sure our residents stay safe.

Detroiters can expect continued smoky air this week.

“It’s probably gonna be hazy tomorrow as well,” said Andrew Arnold, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Detroit office, adding that another alert is possible tomorrow. “Hopefully some improvement by Friday,” he said. 

City officials canceled several events due to poor air quality Wednesday, including  “Walk A Mile” Wednesday with the police chief and a community celebration and ribbon cutting at Roosevelt Park. Masks were to be provided to attendees at an abbreviated press conference to limit exposure.

Arnold said as long as the Canadian wildfires are burning there’s a chance smoke could drift down to Detroit again. Currently, there are nearly 500 fires still burning across Canada, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.  

Richard Rood, a climate and energy expert at the University of Michigan, said the wildfires and smoke are a “climate signal,”of a long-term trend or change in climate. Due to climate change, atmospheric conditions are warmer and drier which makes wildfires more likely. 

“It’s completely consistent with a warming world,” he said. 

Some residents expressed concern via social media that they had not been notified through the city’s new 365 text alert system. 

“I work for Unity in Our Community TimeBank and we used our bulk text system to send out information about the air quality yesterday. I am horrified that the city of Detroit hasn’t done the same with their emergency alert system yet,” Detroit resident Alice Bagley told Planet Detroit early this morning, before the city’s alert went out. “They let me know when the People Mover was closed for a few hours months ago, the fact that the air is poisoned seems more relevant.”

Bagley, who works at an urban farm, said she canceled work yesterday for herself and an employee.

“I am supposed to be working right now, planting tomato plants and picking snap peas. Instead I am inside,” she said, “I did work outside yesterday (with an N95 mask on) and my throat feels scratchy today.”

In Detroit, nearly 1 in 5 residents has asthma as the city’s air quality climbed to the top among the worst in the world Tuesday for the second time in less than a month.

And many Detroiters like Bagley lack central air conditioning, which makes it hard to keep the windows closed as temperatures rise. 

“Our house is all closed up right now, but we don’t have central air so as the temperature rises we are not sure what we will do,” Bagley said. “We have a window unit for our bedroom but it doesn’t seal very tightly and I am not sure what quality the filter is.”

Other residents expressed a mix of anxiety and anger that more hasn’t been done to both warn residents and address climate change.

“I am very lucky to be able to work from home, so although I have a bit of a headache I’m mostly able to be safe by staying indoors and keeping an air purifier on,” said Islandview resident Amy Hemmeter. “Mentally and emotionally, it’s very difficult. I’m angry beyond measure.”

Earlier this month when Detroit’s air quality was also among the worst in the world, again due to wildfire smoke, the department’s lag in communication was similar. 

On June 7, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) issued an air quality advisory for numerous Michigan counties, including Wayne County. 

But it wasn’t until more than 24 hours after the alert and after BridgeDetroit inquired about the Detroit Health Department’s response that a press release was issued. 

BridgeDetroit followed up several times afterward to ask about the department’s plans moving forward to inform residents about unhealthy air quality days. More than two weeks passed and the department did not responded. 

In the last week, Detroit Alerts 365, issued two other alerts: one for a severe thunderstorm warning and two regarding a jackknifed semi on I-75. 

For an in-depth look at air quality, check out Planet Detroit’s “How safe is my air quality” climate guide. Also check out this guide to making a low-cost indoor air filter from Outlier Media.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a Tuesday morning Facebook post from the city about air quality conditions.


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