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Stateside Podcast: Are bad air days here to stay?

Detroit skyline

With a severe Canadian fire season piled on top of everyday ambient hazards in the metro Detroit area, it has been a distinctly bad summer for the area’s air quality. This season has been particularly taxing on people with asthma and other respiratory conditions. Dr. Ikenna Okereke, director of thoracic surgery at Henry Ford Health, joined us to talk about the air quality concerns in the metro Detroit area.

Are these air pollution concerns new?

They are not. Dr. Okereke recounted the acid rain in Detroit back in the eighties: “That was really a precursor to what we see today, in which we saw the environmental effects and environmental exposures affecting illness.” However, he noted that he’s never seen air quality as bad as it has been this summer in Detroit.

Here's a list of everything you need to know about air quality in Michigan, its effects, and what you should do if you get a bad air quality notification.

Is air pollution related to lung cancer?

In looking at malignant diseases, Dr. Okereke asserted that there is an association between air pollution and lung cancer. Looking at Wayne county specifically, where there are wide disparities in air quality within the county, there are increased incidences of lung cancer in the areas with more air pollution.

And what about lung-related diseases in general?

“Anecdotally, we did notice an increased number of visits to the E.R. for lung-related diseases,” said Dr. Okereke.

On top of that, he noted that there has been an increased volume of patients calling in with respiratory insufficiency or respiratory distress.

How is gentrification related to the worsening of air quality?

“We did see that, in Wayne County, gentrification was also strongly associated with worsening of air pollution,” said Dr. Okereke. “Now our hypothesis is that that's probably related to the construction of three major sporting venues, increased traffic density, increased number of businesses, and the increased pollution that may come from these places.”

Dr. Okereke also mentioned that the accumulation of pollution from gentrification may take longer to manifest than the effects we’ve already seen in the last 10 to 20 years.

In addition to sporting venues, are there other specific areas of concern for air quality?

Dr. Okereke cited that the River Rouge area has particularly high levels of pollution, likely as a result of the chemical and manufacturing plants.

What precautions should be taken in our daily lives?

“When I look at the people that are affected, I say everyone is affected, but some more than others,” said Dr. Okereke.

While people with subclinical or clinical lung illness, such as asthma, will likely be more affected by increased air pollution, Dr. Okereke generally advises not to be outside for more than 30 minutes if the Air Quality Index is over 150. He also suggested limiting activity, keeping track of the air quality daily, and, if you do go outside, wearing a mask (specifically an N95 mask if you have significant illness).

What are bigger, structural changes that would improve air quality?

Dr. Okereke noted the importance of reducing emissions by incentivizing alternative energy sources — specifically on the national level.

Considering that many people have unhealthy air conditions in their homes, what can be done to increase air quality indoors?

Dr. Okereke suggested increasing greenery and using air filters, both of which can be relatively inexpensive.

“These are things that I think that we have to think about at a community level and state level [is] trying to subsidize for those disadvantaged and vulnerable communities,” said Dr. Okereke. “Because we know in these communities, these are the areas that have the spikes and have the increased incidences of lung related disease such as asthma.”

To learn more about these air quality concerns, their precedence, and what can be done to improve them, listen to the Stateside Podcast.

[Get Stateside on your phone: subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify today.]

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Olivia Mouradian recently graduated from the University of Michigan and joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.