It’s not just Flint: Poverty is bad for your health in Michigan, study finds

The Flint water crisis is perhaps the best known case of environmental injustice in recent years, but a study from the University of Michigan has identified other areas of the state that also are disproportionately vulnerable to pollution. (Shutterstock photo)

Five years after regulatory blunders exposed Flint residents to lead-tainted water, a University of Michigan study has flagged “hot spots of environmental injustice” across the state where residents are most vulnerable to pollution. 

Those include neighborhoods in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Saginaw, Lansing and Kalamazoo, where mostly low-income people of color are routinely exposed to high levels of air pollution and live near highways, hazardous waste facilities and federally designated Superfund cleanup sites.

Census tracts in those cities scored highest on an index of environmental injustice, devised by three graduate students, that included 11 environmental indicators and six demographic indicators, according to the report published Thursday morning.

A growing body of research shows that lower-income communities of color are more likely to endure pollution. Members of the environmental justice movement have sought to flag those communities and give them a louder voice in permitting and other decision making.

The study mapped such disparities across the state, drawing on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Census Bureau. Researchers hope it will inform Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration as it prioritizes environmental justice for the first time in state government. 

“Environmental injustice exists across Michigan, with residents of low-income and minority communities disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination and health risks—just as we saw in Flint,” said Paul Mohai, a professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. He is a leader in the environmental justice movement and advised the students on the study. 


The study found that Kalamazoo, Kent and Wayne counties are home to nearly all of the most at-risk census tracts, where there are large concentrations of people of color, high levels of poverty and unemployment and lower levels of education attainment.

The study recommended the state should adopt its own map of environmental injustice hot spots. Other states, including California and Minnesota, have adopted such tools to guide decision-making and understand what communities might need more public health resources. 

Mohai has called the water crisis in Flint, a majority black city where 41 percent of residents live in poverty, the “most egregious” example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history. 

The city, led by an emergency manager appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, switched drinking water sources to the Flint River in 2014 to save $5 million. The state approved the change but didn’t require any treatment to control corrosion of aging water mains, a measure that would have cost less than $40,000 per year. The highly corrosive Flint River rusted the mains, causing lead to leach into drinking water, exposing families to the neurotoxin that damages development of the brain and nervous system. State regulators first ignored the problem, then tried to discredit whistleblowers.

Though testing shows lead levels in Flint’s water have since decreased dramatically, many residents still don’t trust their taps — or their government

Mohai served on former Snyder’s Environmental Justice Work Group, assembled following the Flint saga. Last year, the group submitted 33 recommendations to avoid future crisis and rectify ongoing injustices statewide. His students’ research flowed from those recommendations. 

In previous research, Mohai that found 82 percent of Michigan’s black public school students and 62 percent of Hispanic students attended schools in areas with high levels of industrial pollution, compared with 44 percent of white students.

Industrial pollutants tallied in that 2011 study included lead, manganese, sulfuric acid, nickel and chlorine, chemicals "suspected of producing a wide variety of health effects, including increased risk of respiratory, cardiovascular, developmental,and neurological disorders, as well as cancer."

Thursday’s study builds on such findings. 

“We are hoping the state will take notice of this,” Mohai said.

Regina Strong, who Whitmer in April appointed as the state’s first environmental justice public advocate, told Bridge she is paying attention. 

“It absolutely is good for us as we start developing how, as a state, we’re going to be looking at environmental injustice hotspots,” said Strong, a longtime environmental activist in Detroit. 

Whitmer created Strong’s position while transforming the Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The new department also houses a team — composed of agency directors across state government — to draw a statewide environmental justice plan.

That team has been meeting monthly to move forward on that goal and continue looking at recommendations from Snyder’s post-Flint work group, Strong said. 

“This report helps move us in that direction,” she said. 

Some Republicans in the Legislature have questioned Whitmer’s new focus on environmental justice, including how she defines the concept and whether it affects state permitting. 

Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he “is open to a conversation regarding environmental justice and how we define that in Michigan. Senator Shirkey believes the topic requires more discussion and explanation.” 

Strong said her efforts won’t alter state regulations. Beyond mapping injustice and responding to complaints, she said, her role is broadly a “convener” in affected communities and the business community. 

“Maybe you’ll be talking to people that you haven’t talked to before as you make your decisions around your business,” she said. 

Bridge staff writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Susan Murdie
Thu, 07/25/2019 - 9:33am

Please study the demolitions (that causes lead dust and other harmful exposures) that the State of Michigan and Cities have had on the people in the poorest neighborhoods for a potentially HUGE environmental injustice!

Doug L
Thu, 07/25/2019 - 10:13am

This article spreads misinformation on what actually caused the high levels of lead in Flint water. The article states "The highly corrosive Flint River rusted the mains, causing lead to leach into drinking water" . What actually happened is the Flint river water cleaned years of deposits from inside the water pipes. Initially, this resulted in nasty discolored crud coming out of the faucets. Once the inside of the old lead pipe was exposed to the water, lead was able to leach into the drinking water. As it certainly did back when the lead pipes were new. The real problem is the old lead pipes. Use of lead in drinking water supplies is an engineering disaster of huge proportions. This is a wide spread problem and the only real solution is to eliminate the lead pipes. If we are smart enough to learn from what happened in Flint, perhaps we can prevent similar problems in other cities.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 07/25/2019 - 6:03pm

Dougie, Dougie! It must be comforting to focus on the chemistry involved in my city's poisoning because it invites to just coast by the fact that a state appointed dictator decided that my family should drink corrosive Flint River water.
Yes, lead pipes are a genuine problem, and ought to be replaced WHEREVER they are. But don't pretend that the poisoning of Flint was only a chemistry problem.

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 10:14am

Environmental Injustice, or the impact of living on the poor side of town is not new. What is new is the term used to describe it. It is an economic condition impacting the poor. Why they are poor is for another discussion.

A former local...
Thu, 07/25/2019 - 10:29am

The primary cause of the Flint water crisis was a total and complete failure of government officials at the local, state and federal levels to properly operate a municipal water treatment & water distribution system. The public body of knowledge regarding how to properly operate a municipal water system is more than 50 years old and it’s not rocket science.

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 1:52pm

Why were people who were brought in to get Flints finances and books straightened out allowed to morph into long term water utility planning, construction and management? Really, should the state or the feds operate local community's utility departments?

Robyn A Tonkin
Thu, 07/25/2019 - 2:31pm

As a 65 year old woman who grew up in the Downriver in the heyday of post-war heavy industrialism , I am often puzzled by current attitudes towards legacy pollution. Legacy pollution is pervasive in southeastern Michigan. I grew up in Trenton, a seven square mile industrial powerhouse. We had McClouth North and McClouth South steel mills, Monsanto, and Detroit Edison Trenton Channel plant, to name only four industrial sites. There were many smaller employers, like tool and die shops, and galvanizing works. Just to the west of town was the Suconi Mobil refinery. There were vast numbers of lead-spewing cars, trucks and buses on the roads. There was a Chrysler plant in town, and when I got into high school, a Ford plant in Woodhaven. Where did all the fly ash, the lead particulates, other heavy metal residues, spilled oil and grease and the sulfur dioxide go? In almost unimaginable quantities, it went into the air, into the soil, into the water, into the mud at the edge of the Detroit River, and into the mud in its bed. Something that is interesting is to read a list of all the asbestos sites in Trenton--it's as though the town lies gently covered by a soft, wooley blanket of asbestos, there are so many asbestos contaminated sites. So along comes a collaboration of college students, 50 years on, when all that industrial might is a memory, and cherry pick the polluted places, where industry hangs on. It's all polluted and it all needs cleaning up, and cherry picking a site here, and a site there, simply clouds the issue of the almost unbelievable level of legacy pollution that exists in the Detroit area. I've never smoked one day in my life, and I am sitting here with damaged lungs from breathing in fly ash for the first 18 years of my life. It was what it was, it is what it is. Two things remain. The Downriver industrial era supported a brief era of unparalleled job availability and opportunity for social mobility for ordinary Americans. This golden era came with a social cost some people are beginning to grapple with--vast pollution and environmental degradation. The enormity of the problem needs to be admitted to.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 07/25/2019 - 6:00pm

Shootings of young black people because they are perceived by police as threatening are the most dramatic examples of how African Americans are treated as 'other', as alien, but they are not the only examples. In Flint, the African American citizens who complained about the terrible condition of the water were easily dismissed by state officials because they were African American, i.e., not 'our' folks.
Poor folks are very easily dismissed, especially if they are black. They are largely invisible under 'normal' circumstances because their persistent reality is rather distressing to the rest of us. (It is much easier and more comfortable to just ignore their existence.) If they raise a ruckus to refuse to be invisible, they seem strident, pushy, and--yes--threatening to us in our comfort. They are easy to dismiss as exaggerating, uncouth, and 'unworthy' of our attention (after all, OUR water and air are all right).
Permitting bad water in Flint and bad air (or schools) in poor, black communities is nothing less than the result of our racism, period. They are suffering due to our illness, the illness of racism.

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 1:30pm

Groundbreaking study, truly. The researchers are correct though. It's not just Flint...or Michigan. Poverty is going to negatively impact a person's health wherever that person may live. Income/employment status/economic stability are some of the most crucial social determinants of health. I simply want to state the title of this article should have circled more around 'environmental injustice' rather than a topic that is already known.

J Hendricks
Sat, 07/27/2019 - 6:52am

Wait. In every town there will be an industrial district. Most of these have been around a long time and are dirty unsightly noisy and generally obnoxious. There will also be some nearby or adjacent residential areas - because somewhere industrial use ends and something else begins. Those areas are not desirable places to live. The market thus reflects this realty and hence home prices are cheap. Poorer people can’t afford anything better so that’s where they end up living. Over time as their curcumstance improve, they move on to greener pastures. That is life.

What does the “environmental justice” lobby wish us all to do? Give all poor people vouchers so they can move to Bloomfield Hills?

Alex Sagady
Sat, 07/27/2019 - 4:12pm

The "study" from the University of Michigan is an exercise in pseudo-science in which the principles of environmental health science and toxicology are ignored, old/out-of-date data is mis-used, data sets are misinterpreted or misrepresented for what they are, available data on actual environmental hazards and contamination are ignored, weight is given to factors which should not be weighted and the "researchers" algoriths are used to introduce race/economic-based discrimination into assessments of environmental hazards in order to render environmental contamination below a level of public concern if a community is not over 50% racial minority or economically impaired.

Claims that the graduate student's work perform a "cumulative assessment" of environmental risk are erroneous as toxicology and risk assessment.

No apparent peer review by those with hard science expertise in toxicology, risk assessment, epidemiology and air quality science was done.

Overall assessment. The University of Michigan School of Natural Resources commits a political-based attack on sound environmental and public health protection science for the purpose of making race-based and economic-base distinctions in the assessment of community environmental and public health hazards.