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Southwest Detroit residents want health investigation

Many people call Detroit a “post-industrial” city.

But residents in one corner of the city still live alongside a cluster of heavy industry, and they say it’s affecting their health. Now, community members in southwest Detroit want the state to do more to find out just how extensive those health impacts might be.

Southwest Detroit is home to a number of heavy industrial sites. Some effects can be seen with the naked eye: from hazy diesel truck fumes to an eerie metallic dust residents say has rained down on their neighborhood. But others are more subtle. The neighborhood is full of children with asthma. Residents also blame the pollution for cancer and other deadly illnesses, though such a link hasn’t been definitively established.

Now, southwest Detroit residents are pushing hard for the government to launch a thorough investigation into those potential health impacts.

“When I talk to my seniors who talk about respiratory problems, and when I hear about family members who’ve passed away with cancer, I stress the importance of trying to look at these toxins collectively.”

That’s Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who represents the community in the State House. She wants the state to start conducting what are called cumulative impact studies of toxins whenever it issues new air permits in areas with lots of existing pollution.

“We don’t know what we’re breathing. We don’t know collectively what that means to our health."

A recent University of Michigan study named one southwest Detroit zip code, 48217, as the state’s most toxic. Just HOW toxic? Researchers took air pollution data and assigned each zip code a “toxic burden score.” The statewide average was 56. Zip code 48217’s score was 2,576.

Tlaib isn’t the only lawmaker pushing the issue either. Detroit City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta chairs the Special Task Force on southwest Detroit.

“Southwest Detroit has been identified as one of the most polluted areas in the United States. So this is something we think the time has come.”

Kenyatta and others say emerging research also points to less tangible effects of air pollution—like diminished cognitive abilities in children. But as researchers work to untangle cause and effect, people in southwest Detroit say they’re already in the middle of a living experiment. And they want authorities to start paying attention.

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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