On the Beat

On the Beat

I was a Brooklyn girl, raised on slate sidewalks and stoopball. But in my pre-maternal youth, I chased fancy degrees and good jobs all over the country —New England, Manhattan, Miami, Los Angeles. When I moved to Michigan two decades ago as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, I was unsettled by the many locals who said they were amazed that a young professional like me would move from the fast lane to Michigan, of all places.

Aw shucks, I replied, trying to match their charming midwestern humility. Michigan’s a great place, especially if you want to dig into issues like the environment and health, two topics that intersect often, and which I covered for the state’s largest newspaper.

Of course, Michiganders already know about the rich heritage, top universities, trend-setting challenges, and breathtaking scenery that combine to make their state a world-class place to live, study, and work—especially in public health.

Over my years on the beat in Michigan, I filled scores of notebooks with interesting facts, many related to public health. Here’s a sampling of what I learned, an idiosyncratic and incomplete tour of the state’s public health highpoints—with a bias toward problems that need fixing. After all, I believe that journalists and people who go into public health generally share a desire to work for the good of society. Journalists try to play their part by drawing attention to situations like these:

  • Michigan is one of the top ten fattest states in the nation, with three of every ten adults obese and an additional 35 percent of adults overweight. It’s true, one of Detroit’s favorite culinary specialties is the Coney dog, a sausage bursting with molten fat and covered in chili. But many outside this state don’t know that Michiganders also are unusually, even obsessively, engaged in the healthy pastime of outdoor recreation. No state except Florida has more licensed personal watercraft. No state east of the Mississippi has more public land than the 7.7 million acres of publicly owned property in Michigan. The state also ranks third in the number of hunting licenses issued—795,000 a year—and seventh for the number of licensed anglers, 1.1 million a year. And only three states have more golf courses than Michigan’s 825. So despite our collective girth, we Michiganders know how to get outside and enjoy ourselves. That’s got to be a plus for officials who work for our state health department, among the oldest in the nation. They’re promoting an ambitious public education effort to trim Michiganders’ fat.
  • Four of the five Great Lakes touch Michigan’s shores, and they’re home to one-third of the world’s fresh water. But those sea-like expanses are just the most prominent of the surface water resources—and related health challenges—in Michigan. The state is graced with thousands of smaller lakes and many miles of river, which make for glorious views and spectacular sunsets. But there are health advisories on the amount of fish that children and women of childbearing age should eat from every single one of the state’s lakes and rivers. Mercury released by smokestacks to air and deposited on the “sweet waters” of the state is one of the main culprits in causing the fish advisories. Did I mention that Michigan has the largest coal-burning power plant in the nation—in Monroe, a small city south of Detroit that’s also known as the Home of the La-Z-Boy? Until just a few months ago, we also had the country’s largest municipal incinerator in Detroit, which ceased operations last October.
  • It’s worth noting that the zip code with the heaviest air pollution emissions in the country, according to many researchers, is in metro Detroit, on the southern side of the city. An oil refinery and various auto-related factories contribute to the haze there. This is ground zero for the industrial revolution, a few miles from the spot where Henry Ford developed his first horseless buggy. State officials observe that air pollution in the neighborhood has improved greatly in recent years, and they dispute the “most polluted” moniker. But they acknowledge that this zip code probably has hosted more pollution- and health-related studies than any other in the nation.
  • Across the state, near Lake Michigan and the sand dunes that famously characterize the western side of our lower peninsula, you can find more migrant farm workers on a summer day than in any other state except California and possibly Florida. Although many non-Michiganders have the impression that this is an industrial state—and it is — agriculture and outdoor-related tourism are the second- and third-largest industries here. Michigan grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, many of which are picked by hand. The migrant farm workers who do this generally are low-income and poorly insured, so they often have public health needs that a wealthier, insured population might not. Michigan’s signature crop, by the way, is the cherry, touted by its producers for its high antioxidants. Machines usually harvest our cherries, though, by shaking the trees until the fruit drops.
  • Because of its rich agricultural palette, Michigan is thoroughly engaged in the local food movement, with hundreds of farmers’ markets drizzled across the state. We have a healthy share of corporate food-production too. Kellogg’s, inventor of the breakfast cereal, is based in Battle Creek. And Midland-based Dow Chemical Co. is a large producer of some famous pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Among its most infamous products, from a public health standpoint, is Agent Orange, the defoliant used by U.S. troops during the Vietnam War and later linked with many health issues. In the 1960s, author Rachel Carson first brought to public attention the downside of pesticides with her landmark book, Silent Spring, which she developed based in large part on observations of birds and trees in Michigan. Today, the agriculture industry’s attention is turned to Michigan for another reason. Detroit, which has lost more than half its population over the past few decades, now has so much vacant land throughout the city that it’s home to many neighborhood vegetable gardens—plus some ambitious plans to redefine the notion of city by creating some large urban agriculture operations where homes and factories once stood.
  • From an infectious disease standpoint, Detroit is famous as a hotbed of antibiotic resistance. The first cases of MRSA, or methicillin resistant staph aureus, were found here. So was the first case of the even more frightening VRSA, or vancomycin resistant staph aureus. But in a karmic sense, Michigan makes up for introducing the world to those nasty microbes by also playing a prominent role in the creation of the polio vaccine and, more recently, in the development of the FluMist vaccine —both projects tied to the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

I could go on for days with interesting, health-related stories with Michigan connections. I haven’t even mentioned, for instance, the time in 1973 when a flame retardant became mixed with cattle feed, thereby contaminating the state’s milk supply and effectively making everyone who drank milk in Michigan that year part of an ongoing public health study. (UM SPH faculty helped investigate this public health emergency.)

If there’s one conclusion I’ve drawn from my years as a reporter here, it’s that the locals who professed great amazement at my move here were just testing me, as they like to do with all newcomers. They wanted to see if I was a rustbelt-hating snob or the kind of authentic, down-to-earth person who would appreciate the Great Lake State. Truth be told, beneath that humble exterior, most Michiganders are as proud of their state as any boastful Texan. And, I’ve discovered, with good reason.

One more thing that’s important to know about Michigan: the self-effacing graciousness exhibited by most natives definitely does not extend to conversations about football, or any other sport. Michigan is crazy about its teams! They say it’s good for mental health to have a reason to cheer.

By Emilia Askari.