Air pollution continues to be focus of community coalition to promote a healthy environment in Detroit

A graphic image of a group of 10 people of various ages from infant to elder. A city is in the background.

People living and working in Detroit are exposed to elevated levels of multiple air pollutants, including particulate matter in the air, diesel exhaust, sulfur dioxide, and ozone pollution. Air pollutants have a devastating effect on asthma, cardiovascular risk, cancer, and adverse birth outcomes.

Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE) at the University of Michigan School of Public Health is a research partnership that includes community-based and health organizations, representatives from governmental organizations along with academic partners working to develop and implement components of a public health action plan to improve air quality and health in Detroit.

“Air pollution exposures and their accompanying health effects have long been a concern among Detroit residents, who disproportionately experience many adverse health effects linked to air pollutants,” explained Amy Schulz, professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at Michigan Public Health and co-principal investigator of CAPHE. Air pollution continues to be identified as one of the top public health priorities by Detroit community members and community-based organizations.

In 2017, CAPHE released a Public Health Action Plan, which presented a wide range of recommendations, from clean fuels in city transportation to planting more trees to instituting and promoting the use of air filters in schools, businesses, and homes. Six years later, “work is moving forward on a number of CAPHE’s public health recommendations,” said CAPHE co-principal investigator Stuart Batterman, professor of Environmental Health Sciences and Global Public Health at Michigan Public Health.

Several projects are addressing the expansion of air quality monitoring and indoor air quality improvement, and informing policy decisions to take air pollutants into account. One such research study from CAPHE looks at child serving organizations (e.g., schools, child care centers) in Detroit and surrounding communities with high levels of outdoor air pollution. This intervention study involves monitoring indoor and outdoor air quality and installing or upgrading indoor air filters in the organization’s buildings. 

Another initiative CAPHE is working on with a coalition of community-based organizations ensures that leaders and policy makers have information about the cumulative impacts of multiple air pollutants on health. Truck routes, land use zoning, environmental permitting, and other decisions all have implications on public health and, more specifically, air pollution’s effects on health. 

CAPHE is also working on building up the next generation of informed leaders, citizens, and scientists. The Environmental Health Research to Action (EHRA) program, led by Natalie Sampson, associate professor of Public Health at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and Carmel Price, associate professor of Sociology at UM-Dearborn, engages high school students from Dearborn, Detroit and other nearby communities that experience high levels of air pollutants and other environmental threats. Participants learn about the science of air pollution and health, as well as developing skills in working with decision-makers in their communities to assure that decisions made are informed by scientific evidence.

Under Sampson’s leadership, CAPHE also recently completed a new curriculum for middle school students focused on environmental health and justice, adapted from the EHRA program. The curriculum meets Michigan’s Next Generation Science Standards for middle school science and social studies teachers and provides an exciting and engaging learning experience for middle school students on air quality and health. The curriculum is being piloted with Dearborn schools over the summer.

The success of CAPHE, Schulz explains, comes from the partnerships with community and government organizations. “Relationships with partner organizations are central to CAPHE’s ability to achieve goals related to improvements in air quality and health,” she says. “These include the relationships that partner organizations have with schools, other community groups, and decision-makers. Without these community partnerships, it would be much more difficult for CAPHE to build trustworthy relationships with key decision-makers and to use research-based evidence to inform the decisions that they are making related to air pollutants and community exposure.”