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Meet the people behind a community-based effort to monitor Detroit's air

Uday Parom with his air monitor at Hamtramck High School.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Uday Parom with his air monitor at Hamtramck High School.

Detroit has a problem with bad air.

The city received an F for air quality in a recent report from the American Lung Association. Another studynamed it the Asthma Capital of the country this year, due in part to poor air.

But how bad is Detroit’s air, and where are the hotspots? Gaps in air quality monitoring mean we often don’t know. But some community members are trying to fix that.

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“A real public health crisis with air quality”

When I met Uday Parom at Hamtramck High School recently, I asked him to show me the air quality monitor I’d come to see. He surprised me by pulling out a small black device that looked like a mini-speaker.

“I can just put it in my pocket easily, which actually gives me the privilege to capture the data wherever I go,” explained Uday, who’s a sixteen-year-old sophomore and a member of the school’s Clean Air Council. “My air monitor is connected to my phone via Bluetooth, and it also takes my GPS location so that it can keep track of the place where the pollution is.”

He brought up that day’s data on his phone: an orange blob with a lot of red squiggles. The squiggles traced his movements throughout the day. The orange meant that the Air Quality Index around Hamtramck High was moderate: not too bad, but not great either.

Uday recently took the monitor along for a little trip from downtown Detroit to some northern suburbs. The results were illuminating.

“As you can see here, the downtown Detroit area is totally red,” he said. “And the more we move towards Warren, Sterling Heights, Southfield or Farmington Hills, the air quality actually gets better.”

His data show what researchers and activists have long known.

“In Detroit, what we have is a real public health crisis with air quality,” said Kathryn Savoie of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. “We have 700 people per year that die from air quality issues.”

Savoie, who lives in southwest Detroit, said air pollution is a sort of unseen pandemic: Worldwide, more people died from itin the past two years than died of COVID-19. But while we know air quality in Detroit can be poor, there’s a lot we don’t know — like how bad it is, and how it varies at the street level.

That’s why the Ecology Center has teamed up with partners to install a community-based network of monitors. They’ve put up 35 so far, and Savoie said they hope to have another hundred or so up in the next month. They’re also working on a pilot project that would integrate data from all Detroit’s air monitors, including government monitors, into one website.

“Ultimately this is about giving us the information to help change policy so that people are breathing better air and we are protecting public health,” Savoie said.

More than just data

One of the partners the Ecology Center is working with is a company called JustAir.

Darren Riley is the co-founder and CEO. He said its goal is not only to get more air monitors up, but to get that micro-level data and decipher it in a way that meets community needs.

“JustAir in a nutshell is really just trying to bring more transparency and visibility to the air we breathe, so that we have equal access to clean air,” Riley said.

JustAir's Darren Riley.
Courtesy of Darren Riley
JustAir's Darren Riley.

Riley only launched JustAir about a year ago. He calls it a combination of his life’s journey as a native Detroiter, and his expertise as a data scientist and tech entrepreneur. He developed asthma when he moved back to Detroit four years ago. Before that, he watched his father suffer from it, and saw how other pollution-related conditions burdened the community.

“Just Air really is a culmination from seeing my family suffer with certain issues,” Riley said. “And it raised my awareness when I had the disease of all of my community members who suffer just because of the place they're born.”

But Riley wants to do more than just capture data. He wants to make sure it’s accurate, and accessible. And he also wants us to think about why air quality might differ drastically over just a short distance.

“I've seen monitors spike one mile away [from another] — having, you know, one day of a lot of moderate to poor air quality, where a mile away there's very green [air quality],” Riley said.

Through JustAir, residents can sign up to get real-time data and text alerts about air quality. Riley said having access to that kind of data can do a couple of things. It can alert people who suffer from asthma or other conditions that if the air is bad today, stay inside and take it easy. But it can also help influence planning decisions: things like which neighborhoods might need more green space or fewer idling trucks.

Detroit has a significantly higher asthma burden than the rest of the state, and the gap has only grown worse in recent years.
Asthma prevalence for adults in Detroit vs. Michigan, 2017-19. The city has a significantly higher asthma burden than the rest of the state, and the gap has only grown worse in recent years.

Due to its history of heavy industry, Southwest Detroit has the most air monitors in the city. But there’s another burgeoning industrial hotspot on Detroit’s east side, where there are far fewer monitors.

Filling in gaps on the east side

The Rev. Sharon Buttry and Mark Covington are trying to change that. I met them recently at the Georgia Street Community Collective, an urban farm and community center that Covington has run for the past 15 years.

It’s a lovely sanctuary in a pretty blighted neighborhood. Covington said it’s not zoned for industry, but there are scrap yards, concrete crushing, and the area has seen a resurgence of auto factories and parts suppliers in recent years.

Rev. Sharon Buttry and Mark Covington at the Georgia Street Community Collective on Detroit's east side.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Rev. Sharon Buttry and Mark Covington at the Georgia Street Community Collective on Detroit's east side.

With those businesses came truck traffic. A lot of truck traffic. “I always holler and scream at the trucks. Say ‘You're not supposed to be down here!’” Covington told me, chuckling.

Covington and Buttry teamed up in 2016, when the nearby U.S. Ecology hazardous waste facility wanted to expand. “We just really believed that the community was already overburdened with facilities and industry. This was not the place or time to be adding more,” Buttry said.

The expansion happened anyway, but Buttry and Covington didn’t quit. They created the Detroit-Hamtramck Coalition for Advancing Healthy Environments. And they’re planning a community health study that will take a close look at the intersection between environmental issues and health in three east side ZIP codes.

“This area has much higher hospitalizations for asthma, for preterm births, for low birth weight,” Buttry said. “You’ve got a lot of [health] indicators that are highly elevated in ... this area.”

“In conversations with people, you hear about more people being sick with all types of things: breathing ailments, cancer,” Covington added. “So, something is happening.”

Buttry said it’s tricky to tie air pollution directly to particular health outcomes. But she thinks if they can do that kind of study, the state should be able to do it too — and maybe reconsider permitting decisions in already-overburdened areas.

Oh, and tucked in among the plants, goats, and pigs at Georgia Street? An air monitor. One more data point in a community-driven network that could change the story of air pollution in Detroit.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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