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Heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition

Michigan’s Air Quality May Be Worse Than We Know

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Image credit: Sandra Svoboda

Planet Detroit reporter Brian Allnutt tried to answer whether a southwest Detroit zip code is really the state’s most polluted. What he found is that answers are limited.

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Many area residents are familiar with the often-repeated phrase that 48217 – an area of Southwest Detroit — is Michigan’s most polluted zip code.

But proving that delves into complex territory, and a definite may not help achieving environmental justice.

What we know about 48217 is that there is a lot of pollution there and something needs to be done about it.” — Brian Allnutt, Planet Detroit

Brian Allnutt is a writer with Planet Detroit environmental newsletter. He recently looked into the claims about 48217 and how the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) uses air pollution monitors.


Click on the player above to hear Planet Detroit’s Brian Allnut reporting into how Michigan air quality detection works.


Ultimately it’s impossible to say that a zip code is the most polluted or not, but what we know about 48217 is that there is a lot of pollution there and something needs to be done about it,” says Allnutt. 

A 14-Year-Old Answer

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He explains that the origins of the claim likely began more than a decade ago, based on research from two doctors at the University of Michigan.

A lot of this seems to be based on research from University of Michigan doctors, Dr. Paul Mohai and Dr. Byoung-Suk Kweon, did trying to track air pollution around schools throughout the state,” explains Allnutt who goes onto say that their research indicated that “48217 was the most polluted based on toxic release inventory.”

However, that data is now 14 years old, and Allnutt, who spoke with Dr. Mohai for this Planet Detroit story, says that Mohai thinks it’s time for the study to be repeated for a more recent look at the data.

Location matters for air quality sensors

So how does the zip code measure today? Allnutt says the answer isn’t straightforward. 

Air pollution testing from EGLE has shown that pollution in the 48217 zip code is in fact lower than in some nearby areas, but there’s issues with the monitoring. 

While there is a lot of pollution in Southwest Detroit and the areas bordering 48217 area, are factors, including the placement and location of the 48217 air monitor, need to be taken into account. 

The current EGLE air monitor [in 48217] is on the southwest side of the zip code, which is away from the neighborhood closest to [the Marathon refinery], it’s also upwind of a lot of the pollution that’s being generated, so in some ways some of these other monitors in Detroit or Dearborn might be picking up more of the pollution that could be affecting the zip code,” says Allnutt. 

Holistic monitoring

There are other approaches Michigan could take.

Allnutt points to the work being done by Dr. Stuart Batterman with the University of Michigan who is ”working on a mobile air monitoring lab that could help fill in some of these gaps for areas in 48217 where [EGLE wasn’t] able to put an air monitor.”  

But even with more monitoring, it’s important to know the limitations of the way that the state of Michigan uses the data.

California and Minnesota ”pair monitoring with demographic information on health, race and income level to see how pollution is really affecting people and what can be done about it,” says Allnutt, citing the states as leaders in using environmental data.

This approach takes on a more holistic, action-oriented and cumulative paradigm, and creates layers of accountability for the neighborhoods being hit hard by industry emissions and other environmental toxins. 

In the case of CalEnviroScreen, this research is tied to specific outcomes,” so for instance, Allnutt says that ”if you score really high for environmental injustice, that automatically triggers investment to reduce emissions in a community.”

He says the State of Michigan is developing its own tool.

But “the trick is going to be getting that tied to actual policy outcomes which will require legislative actions,” Allnutt says.

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Annamarie Sysling, Environmental Reporter and Producer, Detroit Today

Annamarie Sysling is a producer for “Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson.” When she’s not at work, Sysling is likely walking or biking somewhere in the city, listening to a neuroscience podcast or eating ice cream.

annamarie.sysling@wdet.org Follow @asysling

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