Detroit is a hotspot for asthma, rates now 46% higher than the state average. A major contributor to the issue is pollution, and in southeast Michigan, ozone is partly to blame.
The region hasn’t met air quality standards in several years for ground-level ozone, a pollutant emitted from industrial facilities, vehicles, and gasoline vapors. It contributes to a number of respiratory health issues, including emphysema, asthma and bronchitis, and is especially harmful for children, whose lungs are still developing. Because the region wasn’t meeting air quality standards, it was designated as “nonattainment” for ozone in 2018, and there were rules in place to reduce the amount of ozone pollution.
Now, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy is requesting that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reclassify the region as meeting air quality standards for ground-level ozone, and the EPA has tentatively proposed that the request be approved. EGLE asked for the reclassification in January after data taken between 2019 and 2021 showed reductions in ozone that the state believes to be permanent. But community groups argue the data is skewed, and worry vulnerable populations in Detroit and several neighboring communities could be in harm’s way.
If reclassified, state environmental officials would stop planning to reduce the nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in southeast Michigan that combine to form harmful ozone. The change also would result in a less robust permitting process for new industry.
The EPA’s proposed approval has been met with fierce resistance from more than 20 community groups and organizations arguing that the reclassification shouldn’t be made because the decision is based on data collected when pollution was reduced due to the economic slowdown during COVID-19 and weather anomalies. The organizations also point to the heavy asthma burden already faced by Detroiters. Rates of asthma in the city due in part to heavy industry and pollution grew last year, and hospitalization rates for Detroit residents with asthma are also four times higher compared to the state as a whole.
It’s also an environmental justice issue. A large portion of the region in consideration is made up of environmental justice communities, Elena Saxonhouse, a managing attorney for the national Sierra Club, told BridgeDetroit. Communities in Detroit and downriver that are primarily people of color, low-income, and already overburdened by pollution. The rate of asthma hospitalizations for Black Detroiters, for example, is three times higher than white Detroiters.
“To put the brakes on planning for greater reduction of the kinds of pollution that causes ozone, without really solid evidence that it’s time to do that – that’s a real problem,” Saxonhouse said.
Robert Irvine, head of the State Implementation Plan unit for EGLE, told BridgeDetroit the department recognizes the pollution levels change year to year, but that the request submitted to the EPA includes controls for the future, should the data not be in compliance anymore.
Irvine said EGLE’s plan includes “additional controls we could choose to put in place.”
“We would have to still do additional reductions if we have some new high values this summer or beyond, but we can design that control program ourselves,” he said.
Activists worry that the problems aren’t confined to ozone numbers. Parts of Wayne County are also in nonattainment for sulfur dioxide, meaning residents are exposed to multiple sources of pollution that have a compounding negative effect. Detroit, River Rouge, Melvindale, Lincoln Park, Wyandotte, and nine other cities in Wayne County are all nonattainment areas for sulfur dioxide.
“We know that the prevalence of asthma has been increasing, especially in our inner city area of Detroit, that’s for sure,” said Pavadee Poowuttikul, MD and division chief of allergy, immunology and rheumatology at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. Many kids who are just starting school, or are even younger, come to her hospital wheezing and having difficulty breathing, and develop persistent asthma symptoms, she said.
Certain areas like downriver and Detroit with power plants and pollution create bad air quality, she added, which directly impacts residents.
“There’s urban air pollution that definitely links to an increase in asthma symptoms, and also even the development of the new onset of asthma,” Poowuttikul said.
Vicki Dobbins, an activist with the Sierra Club and River Rouge resident, has fought for environmental justice and cleaner air for years.
Dobbins lives in 48217, a highly polluted zip code in the state, and said she developed asthma after moving to River Rouge two decades ago. Her grandson was born in Detroit and moved to River Rouge to live with Dobbins and has suffered from severe asthma his whole life, she said.
“(The proposal) makes me feel horrible,” said Dobbins, adding if the reclassification was to be made, “we’re right back where we were from the beginning, starting all over again.”
Saxonhouse told BridgeDetroit it’s the state’s responsibility to make a plan to bring the area into attainment of air quality standards again. “Instead of doing that they’re basically going to EPA saying, ‘look at our monitoring data from the last several years, you should just reclassify us.’”
Reclassification is based on three-year averages. For the years 2018-2020, the levels of ozone worsened, prompting a proposed bump for southeast Michigan up from “marginal” to “moderate” nonattainment, according to EGLE.
The data being used to prove attainment is based on the years 2019-2021.
After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan environmental regulators recorded dips in air pollution across the state. Nitrogen dioxide, a precursor to ozone, dropped 30% compared to the previous year. Across the world, record drops in pollution were recorded in the first year of the pandemic, but in many cases are returning to normal.
“The advantage of re-designating versus not is that we don’t have to adopt a number of pretty prescriptive controls in the area,” Irvine said.
Those controls, he said, are mandated by the EPA and include an inspection maintenance program for automobiles. When the program was last used in the 1990s it was very unpopular with residents because it required residents to get their cars inspected annually, Irvine said.
If the state needed to address high ozone levels in the future, they would likely not use the inspection maintenance program, he said.
“The environmental justice issue is a concern to us, but if we get redesignated and we show additional problems in the future, then I think we can design a program that would be more effective in some of the EJ areas than kind of the broad brush the EPA has set forth,” he said.
Spokesperson for the U.S. EPA Joshua Singer, told BridgeDetroit that the proposal to redesignate the Detroit area to attainment “included a proposed finding that attainment of the ozone standard was due to permanent reductions in emissions – including more protective vehicle emissions standards, nonroad engine emissions standards, and programs to reduce emissions from power plants.”
The EPA is now reviewing comments, including from the 20 organizations led by the Sierra Club and Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, prior to making a final decision. The EPA was unable to provide a timeline for the decision.
“We, of course, hope that the EPA is correct that ozone levels will continue to keep declining,” Saxonhouse said. “It’s just that it’s a little too soon to say.”