School of Public Health, Detroit partners aim to improve city’s air quality


Editor’s note: A summary of this story in Wednesday’s University Record email and earlier online versions listed an incorrect grant amount. The correct amount is $2.8 million.

Plant trees near freeways to serve as green buffers for neighborhoods. Install air filters in city schools. Develop community campaigns to get everyone involved. These are just some of the ideas on the table.

The desired outcome: Improve air quality in the city of Detroit.

The School of Public Health, in partnership with several community groups in Detroit, received a new five-year, $2.8 million grant to combat air pollution and related health risks in Detroit, which has long had among the highest asthma and cardiovascular disease rates in Michigan.

The hope is that the grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Services will create a model for change that can be applied in similar communities throughout the country.

“I’m excited about this opportunity to work with leaders in environmental health in the city of Detroit and to translate research into a practical public health action plan that will have implications in Detroit and beyond,” said Amy Jo Schulz, professor of health behavior and health education and co-principal investigator for the project.

The grant will build on 15 years of research by SPH and community groups to create an action plan. That plan will use research to suggest policy changes, develop community campaigns and recommend ways to reduce exposure to air pollutants, among other things.

One idea is to create green buffers around sources of pollution. Freeways, with diesel trucks and heavy traffic, are major air contaminators. But in older cities like Detroit, many neighborhoods back up directly to them. Buffers would separate residents from polluting sources. The project will examine the effects of planting various types of trees and plants in these spaces to improve air quality.

Detroit has about 80 public schools within 490 feet of a freeway. Since air contaminants seep inside buildings where most people spend the majority of their time, installing effective air filters in schools, residences and businesses would further remove harmful particles, leaving cleaner air behind.

Stuart Batterman, professor of environmental health sciences and co-principal investigator, said he’s looking forward to seeing scientific research used to advocate changes in public policy.

“Here we have a chance to bring our research in a very active way into the policy process,” he said.

Using data to support change is just what one of the Detroit partners wants to do. Guy Williams, president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, said Detroit’s new mayor, council and charter have created a unique window to address some of the city’s environmental problems.

“Thankfully, we are at a new point of opportunity in the city,” Williams said. “Over the next few years organizations like mine and others will be working to not only hold the leaders accountable but support them in getting the job done.”

Other groups involved in the project include the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Detroit Community-Academic Urban Research Center, Community Action Against Asthma and Healthy Environments Partnership.

— Wendy Wendland Bowyer is a freelance writer for the University of Michigan.



  1. Rork Kuick
    on February 19, 2014 at 7:28 am

    They can be onerous and costly, but some places with problems have vehicle emissions tests.

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