As Biden pushes for environmental justice, advocates call for stronger air quality rules

By: - October 31, 2023 4:10 pm

Gina Wilson Steward moderates a panel on environmental justice and air pollution in Detroit on Oct. 30, 2023. | Kyle Davidson

Detroit residents and environmental justice advocates on Monday hosted a roundtable, calling on the state and federal government to set stronger clean air standards and address health impacts in communities of color.

Panelists met at the Kemeny Recreation Center, near the Marathon Petroleum Corp.’s Detroit refinery in Southwest Detroit to discuss the disproportionate impact of air pollution on the city’s residents.

According to an article published by the Harvard Medical School Primary Care Review, Southwest Detroit is battling some of the worst air pollution in the country, with the two zip codes that encompass the region hosting more than 150 facilities emitting toxic fumes, gas, chemicals and particulates. 

Detroit is the country’s fifth worst city for people with asthma, new report says

The tri-cities area — which includes Detroit, River Rouge and Ecorse — and many of the areas that experience high rates of pollution are predominantly Black, with Detroit’s 48217 ZIP code inhabited by more than 80% Black residents, said Ember McCoy, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. 

In 2019, Black Detroit residents were hospitalized for asthma at three times the rate of white residents, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ 2021 update on the state of Detroit’s asthma burden.

Detroit adults were 46% more likely to have asthma than Michigan residents as a whole, with the rate of hospitalization for asthma being at least four times greater than for Michigan residents as a whole. 

Darren Riley, the CEO and co-founder of JustAir, a startup dedicated to ensuring communities have air quality data available for community awareness and advocacy said he developed asthma as an adult after moving to Southwest Detroit from Houston, Texas

“Because I’ve developed asthma as an adult, it really opened my eyes to the social determinants of health, how the environment does impact your health  from an epidemiology standpoint,” Riley said. 

“Realizing that just because you’re from a certain zip code doesn’t mean that you should tolerate, nor have to deal with certain health issues,” Riley said. 

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, air pollution has been linked to public health concerns like cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as diabetes and reproductive, neurological and immune system disorders. 

“The health data does correlate strongly with ZIP code data, in terms of the disparities in the pollutants,” Riley said.

Darren Riley, CEO and co-founder of JustAir, speaks at a roundtable on environmental justice and air pollution in Detroit. | Kyle Davidson

“Typically, we see all the sources from heavy trucking traffic to heavy industry that’s kind of bear hugging these communities. So we essentially are literally smothering communities with a lot of these pollutants that are most dangerous to our health,” Riley said, while calling on the EPA to adopt stronger pollution standards. 

While the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration has proposed stricter standards on pollutants like carbon, methane, soot, smog and mercury many of these updated standards remain in the rulemaking process

Rhonda Anderson, a 23-year Sierra Club retiree and member of JUST Transition Team Michigan said the standards should have been changed decades ago due to the detrimental effects these pollutants have had on the health and quality of life in Black communities. 

While pollution in communities like Detroit’s tri-city area is often in compliance with EPA air quality standards, the people who live in these areas know the pollution standards aren’t strong enough, McCoy said.

The EPA has also acknowledged its current standards on soot may not be strong enough to protect public health. 

These standards also do not consider the different air pollutants interact with one another, Anderson said. 

Panelists at an Oct. 30 panel called on President Joe Biden and the Environmental Protections Agency to set stronger clean air standards. | Kyle Davidson

While all of these pollutants are regulated individually, that’s not how they interact in the air and in people’s bodies McCoy said. 

“Certain pollutants, when combined, as they are in the air, are worse together than they are alone individually … but we still measure them and regulate them as if they’re acting separately,” McCoy said.

In addition to calling on regulators to acknowledge the cumulative impacts of pollutants, these impacts can also worsen otherwise manageable and treatable conditions like asthma and contribute to health impacts over time, McCoy said. 

Additionally doctors may not always recognize that air pollution may be a cause of conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure and dementia, but these factors should be acknowledged, McCoy said. 

However, Dolores Leonard, a retired professor and longtime environmental justice advocate noted that most doctors and schools of medicine are not trained to consider environmental issues.

This also points to the importance of having more doctors of color represented in the impacted communities, Leonard said. 

“We have a lack of people of color doctors in the communities. And so if you go to a different doctor, a different culture, they do not understand the stories that our people are telling,” Leonard said. 

The panel also discussed the importance of investing into the health of communities facing air pollution. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted to the greater public how racism, redlining, unemployment and lack of access to affordable and nutritious food impacted African Americans and the city of Detroit, Leonard said. 

“Economics; racism; power — that’s what drives this country. And so that’s what for me, my opinion, that is what drives health,” Leonard said. 

Delores Leonard, a retired professor and longtime environment justice advocate speaks on a panel about air pollution and environmental injustice in Detroit’s tri-city area. | Kyle Davidson

Leonard advocated for health clinics in schools and to bring food sources into impacted communities like the tri-city area. 

“As I said earlier, we’re a food desert out here. If you don’t have a car, how do you get to Kroger or Meijer, OK? If you go to a whiskey store, is that sufficient to buy fresh fruit?” Leonard said.

“We have to eradicate food deserts and health care negligence,” Leonard said. 

Acting on air pollution would bring substantial immediate benefits McCoy said, but it would also help address cumulative impacts. 

With climate change set to have the greatest impact on communities facing environmental justice, stronger regulations would also provide these communities with the greatest benefit, McCoy said. 

The large number of polluting facilities in predominantly Black areas is not a coincidence, but part of a legacy of racism and environmental racism in the U.S., McCoy said. 

“In order to correct this historical legacy of harms, we really need the [Biden] administration and the EPA to act quickly to strengthen these rules, protect our communities and uphold this stated commitment that they have to environmental justice,” McCoy said.

Natalie Baxter, a medical student and co-director of White Coats for Planetary Health speaks at an Oct. 30 roundtable on air quality and environmental justice. | Kyle Davidson


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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson covers state government alongside health care, business and the environment. A graduate of Michigan State University, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He previously covered community events, breaking news, state policy and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.