Coronavirus shutdown not yet helping air in Michigan’s most toxic ZIP code

While Beirut’s skies turned blue and Venice’s canals ran clear, southwest Detroit’s infamous pollution hasn’t measurably improved since Michigan’s COVID-19 shutdown took effect. (Shutterstock)

In Beirut, the smog cleared and the sky turned blue. In Venice, the usually murky canals ran clear. In Beijing, NASA satellites detected a dramatic drop in nitrogen dioxide pollution. 

These environmental rebounds, the result of work stoppages and stay-at-home orders around the globe that stalled industrial activity and emptied highways of traffic, have been cast by some as a silver lining to the devastating coronavirus pandemic and a sobering reminder of the ways business-as-usual economic activity can wreak havoc on planetary and human health. 

But in southwest Detroit, which includes Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code

So far, the environmental rebound has been far less dramatic. 

It’s a corner of the city in which primarily Latino and African-American neighborhoods butt up against a host of industrial sites and a busy freeway. Instead of clearing up during the state lockdown, environmental and public health advocates worry the COVID-19 shutdown will create an opportunity for area industries to seek looser pollution controls while the virus consumes public attention and regulators move public hearings online to promote social distancing.

Already, federal regulators are rolling back existing environmental controls in the name of jump starting an economy hobbled by the pandemic. 

“People deserve to have input, and I’m worried, because a lot of folks don’t have Internet access or the bandwidth to engage right now,” said Justin Onwenu, a Detroit environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club. 

An underwhelming rebound ... so far

Traffic on Metro Detroit's typically clogged freeways has certainly plummeted, and with it the daily emissions of toxic diesel fumes, particulates and greenhouse gases. Beyond that, more than a week into Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s statewide stay-at-home order, there has been no obvious reduction in air pollutants at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy air monitors near the highway, nor around the factories of southwest Detroit. 

Susan Kilmer, air monitoring unit supervisor for the state environmental department, said the indetectable change likely points to pollution controls already in place at American industrial sites by federal mandate. In other words, Detroit’s air quality, while troubling, is generally better than Beirut and Beijing’s, so any lag in pollution is comparatively underwhelming. 

“It’s not going to be as dramatic as places like China, where some of their industries are not as well-controlled, so you see a really big change,” she said. 

Community advocates also cite the partial nature of Michigan’s stay-at-home order, which allows “essential” business to stay open. Those deemed essential are defined broadly, encompassing farming and food processing as well as oil refining, energy, hardware sales and — pertinent to southwest Detroit and downriver communities — chemical manufacturing. 

In the hardest-hit areas of China, by contrast, the entire economy virtually shuttered. Italy banned movement inside the country.

“There hasn’t yet been an absolute stoppage of activity at industrial facilities, or a big stop in trucking,” said Maggie Striz Calnin, who runs the healthy air program at the nonprofit Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. “Part of that is just from necessity: We still need to move food and resources so people can get what they need.”

Under the federal Clean Air Act and state regulations, certain facilities are required to report emissions and track air pollution in areas surrounding their facilities. They include Marathon Petroleum’s Detroit refinery, which has long faced public outcry for repeatedly violating state and federal air quality standards and causing problems with noise and odor. But those statistics aren’t published in real-time, and a Marathon spokesman would not tell a Bridge reporter whether the company has scaled back production in Detroit in response to the shutdown. 

A spokesman for DTE Energy, which owns coal-fired plants in River Rouge and Trenton, said the shutdown has led to “no changes” in the company’s energy production. 

But give it a month, said Kilmer of EGLE. Long-term public air monitoring data will likely reveal a measurable reduction in airborne pollutants like fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone as Michigan industrial activity slows amid declining demand and stay-at-home orders become more widespread across the nation. 

As of Wednesday morning, 17 states including Iowa and Pennsylvania were not under stay-home orders, which means that even if Michigan's air pollution footprint is shrinking, pollutants may still be wafting in from across state lines. (Across the Detroit River in Ontario, schools and non-essential businesses are closed.) 

Kilmer said we can look to the national economic crisis of 2008-09 for hints of what to expect. With more people out-of-work and gas prices high during the recession, people drove less and factories slowed production. Air pollution also took a noticeable dip across the country.

“But when the economy ramped back up, we also saw pollution increase,” she said.

Polluted air, increased COVID-19 risk

Onwenu, the Detroit environmental justice organizer, warned that casting the COVID-19 pandemic as an environmental win presents an overly simplistic “false choice” between economic progress and human and ecological health. 

Professor Trish Koman, a research investigator at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said it also risks overlooking the role of race and income in predicting who suffers the most from polluted air.

“The way we have allocated land for highways, factories, utilities and other sources of air pollution often ends up falling on racial minorities,” Koman said. “That’s true in Michigan and across the U.S.”

There is a very real connection between air pollution and illnesses like the new coronavirus. Breathing air polluted with particulate matter from diesel exhaust, nitrogen oxides from oil refining and other airborne pollutants is associated with a host of diseases, from asthma and heart disease to cancer. Medical experts say people with these types of underlying health issues are more likely to die of COVID-19. 

This means many residents of Detroit, most notably southwest areas of the city, who breathe particularly polluted air, have disproportionately high rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease and other illnesses linked to air pollution. With Detroit now as the epicenter of Michigan’s exploding COVID-19 outbreak, these residents appear to be at far greater risk than the average Michigan resident.

During the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, people living in areas with heavy air pollution were more likely to die from the disease. At the same time, research shows even a temporary respite can bring real health benefits. For example, during a labor strike that closed the area steel mill in Utah Valley, Utah in the winter of 1986, two-thirds fewer children went to the hospital for lung illnesses.

Although it’s unclear whether a brief period of cleaner air would reduce Michigan residents’ vulnerability to the coronavirus, “for the quality of life of people who live with these risks every day, any improvement in air quality matters,” Striz Calnin said.

Of course, without structural changes to transportation habits, power production methods and industrial activities, any environmental and public health gains caused by the COVID-19 shutdown will be temporary. Once stay-at-home orders are lifted, many workers will likely resume work commutes in single-passenger vehicles. Shuttered businesses will reopen and industrial production will ramp up.

If there is a permanent environmental benefit to be gained from the coronavirus, said Koman of U-M, it may be the realization of just how much our current norms sacrifice public health for economic progress.

“It gives us the moment,” she said, “to reimagine what a clean and equitable and healthy environment could look like.”


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Alex Sagady
Wed, 04/01/2020 - 10:27pm

This article embraces the ten year old "Detroit zip 48217 is most polluted/toxic" hoax claim, which marks the complete journalistic and environmental science failure of journalists at outlets ranging from the Detroit Metro Times to Newsweek Magazine to the The Guardian, and now Bridge Magazine.

The "Detroit zip 48217 is most polluted/toxic" hoax claim was started in 2010 and promoted by UM School of Natural Resources professor, Paul Mohai (who is not an air quality or toxicology/epidemiology expert), the Michigan Sierra Club and former Detroit Free Press reporter Tina Lamm. The 48217 hoax claim involved Mohai's misrepresentation of year 2006 EPA Risk Screening Environmental Indicator (EPA-RSEI) data as being "air pollution" and as providing geographical-based health risk assessment when EPA explicitly warns that such RSEI data cannot be deemed to be an environmental risk assessment or be used to determine or otherwise specify geographically-related health and environmental effects of pollutant exposure.

Neither the federal Clean Air Act, U.S. EPA nor any air pollution control agency in the United States [including MDEGLE Air Quality Division], consider Mohai's claimed RSEI data analysis to be a valid definition, assessment and health effects characterization of community air pollution, or the health risk of such exposure. MDEGLE air quality data analysis can be reviewed at this site:,9429,7-135-3310_70316---,00.html

Mohai's RSEI review does not consider any of the effects of pollution by the most common pollutants such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, PM2.5, PM10, nitrogen oxides, or carbon monoxide that are regarded by health scientists as the overwhelming primary cause of morbidity and mortality from elevated air pollution.

The article featured comments from Susan Kilmer, air quality monitoring manager at MDEGLE Air Quality Division, but the article author apparently never asked Ms. Kilmer to verify or otherwise validate the pollution claim about Detroit zip 48217.

If the author had practiced even a little due diligence and scientific integrity about the 48217 claim and asked Ms. Kilmer about that claim, the author would have discovered the existence of the following two reports in which MDEGLE Air Quality Division conclusively shows the 'Detroit zip 48217 is most polluted/toxic' claim to be false and erroneous as a result of an MDEGLE community air monitoring effort in the Detroit 48217 Boynton neighborhood:

MDEGLE explicitly disavowed the 'Detroit zip 48217 is most toxic/polluted' claim in this Detroit News article last summer wherein Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's presidential campaign decided to embrace the '48217 most polluted' hoax:

>>>>>>This means many residents of Detroit, most notably southwest areas of the city, who breathe particularly polluted air, have disproportionately high rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease and other illnesses linked to air pollution.

While it is true that incidence of disease can be "linked" to air pollution, it does not mean that air pollution is necessarily either an actual cause or contributor to specific disease states in populations in specific locations. For example, cigarette smoking and exposure to second hand smoke is considered by health authorities to be the most important single factor for population exposures causing lung cancer, with exposure to radon gas indoors being a distant second magnitude cause. Asthma is a multi-factorial disease with many causative and exacerbating factors, and community air pollution is not necessary or even usually the most important factor. Exposure to tobacco combustion smoke, allegens from dust mites, molds/mildew, insects, pets, and indoor air pollution, as well as regular access to competent respiratory health care, are usually far more important factors for asthma, as compared to a few days in the summertime with 8 hour averages over the ozone air quality standard. Rates of hospital admissions for acute asthma in both Detroit and Michigan decline in the summer when ozone concentrations are the highest on a few days per year -- See plate 10 here:

Available health data show that the highest rates of adult asthma, and the highest rates for asthma hospitalizations for both adults and children occur in Detroit locations that are distant from Detroit zip 48217 specifically and SW Detroit in general -- see Plates 12, 13, and 14 here for year 2009-2013 data:

Year 2015 City of Detroit adult asthma data by census track, downloaded from on 04/01/2020, shows that none of the census tracks with the absolute worst rates of adult asthma in Detroit are located in either 48217 or any of the rest of Southwest Detroit:

Nor is there any data showing cancer incidence clusters in 48217 or any unusual cancer rates that are not explained by differences in cigarette smoking rates in a review for years
1999-2009 conducted by the Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services:

>>>>>>>"southwest Detroit’s infamous pollution hasn’t measurably improved since Michigan’s COVID-19 shutdown took effect. "
>>>>>>“There hasn’t yet been an absolute stoppage of activity at industrial facilities, or a big stop in trucking,” said Maggie Striz Calnin, who runs the healthy air program at the nonprofit Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision.

As to Southwest Detroit and Wayne County these statements are false given the fact that as of April 1, 2020, United States Steel Corporation shut down all iron production operations on Zug Island with steelmaking operation also to be shutdown in River Rouge on its border with the Delray Section of Detroit, which traditionally has the highest monitored annual average PM2.5 air pollution and some of the highest 1 hour sulfur dioxide monitored in the State of Michigan. The permanent USSC shutdown decision of this major stationary source will idle 1500 union workers at the River Rouge/Ecorse operations.

>>>>>>In other words, Detroit’s air quality, while troubling, is generally better than Beirut and Beijing’s, so any lag in pollution is comparatively underwhelming.

In 2019, both Detroit and Michigan had its cleanest year ever in nearly 50 years of ozone ambient air quality monitoring with no monitored 4th highest 8 hour average ozone value excursions over the level of the ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards, except for two 4th highest excursions at Holland and Port Huron, MI:
Southwest Detroit is not a 'hot spot' for ozone pollution in Southeastern Michigan as the nearest ozone monitor in Allen Park generally shows ozone values during summer ozone episodes to be less than what is measured in north-central parts of Detroit, and receptors in St. Clair, Macomb and Oakland counties. Muskegon has the highest ozone 'design value' in the entire state for years 2017-2019.

Michigan air quality in 1970 might have been comparable to Bejing's presently, but 50 years of progress in air pollution control in Michigan has meant that Southwest Detroit is not the pollution debacle that it once was. The Detroit Delray section and Southeastern Dearborn still have the highest annual average PM2.5 in Michigan, but these areas nonetheless comply with National Ambient Air Quality Standards for this pollutant which is considered to have the greatest single pollutant impact on public health. Compared to several other locations in the USA, Detroit has many fewer days of unhealthy air for pollutants like PM2.5 and ozone. Claims by politicians, Attorney General Dana Nessel and U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib, that Detroit zip 48217 is the most polluted in the USA or in Michigan have no basis in air quality science and reality:

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 10:20am

Imagine writing all of this to defend industrial polluters. Stunning.

Thu, 04/02/2020 - 11:25am

I used to work for the City of Detroit and that was a worse smell around Fort & Schaeffer than on West Jefferson between Zug Island & Waste Water Treatment Plant.

Alex Sagady
Thu, 04/02/2020 - 3:32pm

The odors that you're addressing are caused by emissions of total reduced sulfur (TRS)
compounds (e.g. hydrogen sulfide, methyl mercaptan, dimethyl-sulfide and dimethyl-disulfide).
Odors vary in strength according to both varying facility emissions, the mix proportions of
TRS chemical species emitted (along with their specific odor characteristics) and meteorological conditions
which affect the downwind, ground-level atmospheric gas concentrations of TRS outside of
facility fence-lines.

MDEGLE Air Quality Division has issued two recent outstanding notices of violation addressing odors
from the Marathon Detroit Refinery for incidents late last year:

Michigan has an ambient air quality standard for hydrogen sulfide ambient exposure of 0.005 ppm
effective in Wayne County only and measured on a 2 minute sampling time basis. However, MDEGLE
Air Quality Division is not presently effectively enforcing this requirement, in large part,
because MDEGLE-AQD does not have any ambient sulfur dioxide portable air monitoring
equipment capable of accurate measurements of air concentrations down to the 0.005 ppm

U.S. EPA Region V did a one day review with an air monitoring truck of hydrogen sulfide
(only, not other TRS species), and found on that day that the highest H2S concentrations measured
were downwind of the Great Lake Water Authority wastewater treatment plant and sludge dryer:

The WWTP is not required to report its annual hydrogen sulfide or total TRS emissions. The sludge
dryer across the street is only required to report emission incidents exceeding its emission
limitations on each of its dryers stack discharges.

Here is the latest available data on annual hydrogen sulfide emissions reported in EPA's
toxic release inventory for the largest industrial source categories:
The 2018 data show that the combined source of both U.S. Steel and EES Coke
on Zug Island is the largest industrial hydrogen sulfide emission source in the State of Michigan.

Unfortunately, a bill under consideration in Congress [HR 585, the so-called "BREATHE Act"
to amend the Clean Air Act] supported by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and the Sierra Club would, if enacted,
deregulate all existing hydrogen sulfide emission control requirements by making all such
requirements federally unenforceable.

HR 585 illustrates that you cannot necessarily rely on citizen environmental organizations
for competent proposals for atmospheric and clean air environmental protection
stewardship or accurate environmental information and analysis.

bob shishka
Thu, 04/02/2020 - 7:28pm

Okay. Who said self quarantining was intended to solve the polluted air crisis? Did I miss the memo on this one? I thought the principal benefit was purely for containment purposes, with a side effect or unintended consequence of good environmental outcomes? So why publish the article? It's misleading. This is precisely why many people have lost faith in media.

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 11:02am

Alex: You have given us a long, arcane essay here and I would like to re-read it with the perspective of just what is your point here? Can you please condense this into two small paragraphs so that I can review what you have written. Are all the state's arguments for regulationing specific pollutants illogical because we don't possess hydrogen sulfide detectors?

Alex Sagady
Wed, 04/15/2020 - 10:27pm

>>>>>>Are all the state's arguments for regulationing specific pollutants
illogical because we don't possess hydrogen sulfide detectors?

Your question raises issues that I plan to brief shortly in a memorandum to the
district supervisor of MDEGLE Air Quality Division Detroit District. The
fundamental issue is that MDEGLE-AQD has a rule about hydrogen sulfide
ambient concentrations outside facility fencelines. Because MDEGLE does not
have H2S monitoring capability, another means must be required to ensure that
Marathon Refinery, ESS Coke and the Great Lakes Water Authority do not cause
hydrogen sulfide ambient impacts that exceed the MDEGLE-AQD hydrogen sulfide
air quality standard. Each of those sources has a Title V operating permit and
each of those sources must certify compliance with all applicable federally enforceable
rules, including the H2S ambient air quality standard. However, the MDEGLE Title V
operating permits presently issued to each of those facilities does not have provisions which
ensure compliance with the 0.005 ppm H2S limit at all geographical receptor points. This
failure cheats local citizens in SW Detroit, River Rouge, Melvindale, Allen Park and Dearborn
out of assurrances that local industry will alway comply with the 0.005 ppm H2S Limit (2 minute
average basis). MDEGLE-AQD-Detroit District needs to develop an alternate method under
these Title V permit involving modeling demonstrations that certifies that emission sources are
complying with this ambient limit for hydrogen sulfide.

What should NOT be done is to pass HR 585 that Rep. Rashida Tlaib co-sponsored that
deregulates all existing hydrogen sulfide requirements in the United States, including the
MDEGLE-AQD rule for Wayne county hydrogen sulfide.