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Improving Air Quality in the Motor City

Industrial production has been a cornerstone of Detroit’s economy, but this production can create challenging health issues. The city struggles with some of the state’s highest rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease. U-M’s School of Public Health is working with several Detroit-based organizations to change that.

With a $2.8 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U-M public health researchers have partnered with academic peers and Detroit community organizations to form Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE), a collaborative initiative to help improve air quality and resident health in Detroit.

Using an approach that engages community and academic partners together in all phases of the research process, and building on 15 years of community-academic research partnerships focused on health equity in Detroit, CAPHE is gathering data to understand the factors influencing air quality.

“Emissions in Detroit affect populations that are vulnerable, including children and those with existing health issues,” said Amy Schulz, professor of health behavior and health education, who is a co-principal investigator.

Findings will spur recommendations for decreasing Detroiters’ exposure to air pollutants and, thus, reducing associated health risks. In January, CAPHE submitted research findings to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality related to the Marathon Petroleum Company’s request to increase sulfur dioxide emissions at its oil refinery in Southwest Detroit. The nine-page document included 15 data-driven findings about the projected health impact of increased emissions for Detroiters.

“Air pollution has long been a community concern in Detroit,” said Guy Williams, president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice and CAPHE Steering Committee member. “We have coal combustion, incinerators, an oil refinery, steel mills, truck traffic and other contributors that impact air quality. These types of emissions are linked to asthma, cardiovascular disease, and low birth weight, all of which are dangerous to our health. I’m very glad to see some of the team’s research already being used to help address real-world public health problems in the city.”

In addition to driving policy change in Detroit, the partnership’s collaborative research approach—and forthcoming public health action plan—also will serve as a model for similar communities across the U.S. The initiative may also have broader environmental policy implications, including recommendations for reducing exposure to roadway pollutants that could impact the nearly 40 million Americans living within 300 feet of a four-lane highway.

“This effort has been a long time coming,” said Angela Reyes, executive director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation and CAPHE Steering Committee member. “It will surely benefit our communities for years to come.”