SPH in Detroit: In the Air

In the Air

Collaborative efforts to reduce the health impacts of air pollution

Air pollution affects any number of American cities, Detroit included, but what interests Tim Dvonch most are the factors that set Detroit apart from the rest of the country. Those include industry, notably automobile manufacturing and associated iron and steel production, as well as a large oil refinery, sizable coal-fired power plants, and significant traffic—including the largest commercial border crossing between the U.S. and Canada.

To assess the health impacts of emissions from these sites, Dvonch, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at SPH and director of the U-M Air Quality Lab, is conducting a series of studies, some with partnerships affiliated with the Detroit Community–Academic Urban Research Center (Detroit URC). In collaboration with researchers in Community Action Against Asthma, for example, he has examined the role of air pollutants in childhood asthma. Dvonch is also working with SPH Professor Amy Schulz and the Healthy Environments Partnership to understand how air pollution exposures contribute to risk for cardiovascular disease. To date they've found that exposures appear to have a stronger effect in communities nearest emission sources.

Dvonch is also involved in GLACIER (the Great Lakes Air Center for Integrated Environmental Research), one of four national Clean Air Research Centers funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. GLACIER is charged with assessing the role of airborne pollutants in cardiometabolic syndrome across both urban and rural airsheds. Using mobile exposure laboratories, Dvonch and a team of researchers from U-M, Michigan State University, and Ohio State University are assessing the impacts of air pollution exposures in specific Detroit-area communities. The team employs both animal models of exposure and human exposure studies in an effort to identify the mechanistic processes by which specific airborne pollutants contribute to disease. They're also comparing the effect of these pollutants on health in Detroit with their impact outside the city.

"We see clear impacts from local urban emission sources, which means this can be regulated, and that's important for informing policy- and decisionmakers," Dvonch says.

Through Community Action Against Asthma and the Healthy Environments Partnership, he and his colleagues have shared their findings with both community members and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels. "We would like to think our work has informed and improved regulations," Dvonch adds.

Immigration Policy and Health

In her doctoral dissertation, Alana LeBrón, PhD '15, examined the influence of post-9/11 immigration policies and attitudes on the health of Latinos in Detroit. Because of the city's proximity to the Canadian border, residents in this border community contend with border policies, multiple immigration enforcement agencies, and Michigan's policy to deny driver's licenses to undocumented residents.

Working with the Detroit URC's Healthy Environments Partnership (HEP) and with the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, LeBrón and an assistant interviewed 50 Detroit Latinas. In particular, LeBrón wanted to know how women's experiences with these circumstances affect both their health status and their access to social and economic resources, such as the ability to get a job or driver's license or to remain in the U.S. LeBrón also used HEP survey data to examine links between discrimination and health for Detroit residents.