Threat of environmental injustice extends beyond Flint


About a year ago Grand Rapids resident Myichelle Mays, 25, picked up her young son, De'Mari, now 4, from a sitter, and immediately knew something was wrong.

De’Mari, who had been diagnosed with asthma just before his first birthday, “was gasping for air,” she recalled. “He couldn't breathe. You could hold him and hear the wheezing. I freaked out.”

Mays rushed the boy to the hospital, the latest of five or six trips to the emergency room since he was infant. Now it is a fear she lives with each day.

“It's stressful, not knowing what is going to happen.”

It was a frightening episode, but one familiar to thousands of low-income minority families in Michigan. And it might be one more reason to view Flint's water crisis as merely the latest chapter in a long narrative in which impoverished residents of color are more likely to bear the brunt of environmental hazards.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, black children have four times the hospitalization rate for asthma of white children, according to data collected between 2011 and 2013. In Detroit, hospitalization rates for African Americans of all ages was four times higher than whites for asthma. Eight of the top 10 zip codes in 2014 for asthma hospitalization were in Detroit, which is overwhelmingly black.

While the triggers for asthma are complex, it is linked both to environmental pollutants such as car exhaust and industrial particulates and agents in the home. Many Detroit neighborhoods also rank at the top in Michigan for exposure to airborne pollutants.

And so it is with lead. In 2014, seven of the top 10 zip codes for unsafe lead levels in children under 6 years old in Michigan were in Detroit, in areas of high poverty that are largely black.

Number 13 on the list was a zip code in Grand Rapids that is 70 percent black and Hispanic. More than one-third of these residents live in poverty, and 86 percent live in homes were built before 1970, when the use of now-banned lead-based paint was common.

A troubling link

Lead is a neurotoxin that hinders development of the brain and nervous system, particularly in young children because of the rapid growth of the brain the first few years of a child's life. While lead in the water was the culprit in Flint, in most cases high lead levels in children are tied to crumbling lead paint particles that lurk on the walls and floors in aging homes, which are more likely to be occupied by the poor and minorities.

Lead exposure is one of many ways in which poor families of color in Michigan are more profoundly exposed to airborne pollutants that can damage their health, according to one expert. Add it up and it tells a story of widespread, disproportionate, environmental exposure from air, water, soil – and yes, the home.

“We do see the concentrations of pollutants and contaminants in neighborhoods where people of color live,” said Paul Mohai, a University of Michigan professor specializing in environmental research and policy and founder of its Environmental Justice Program.


“These are also areas with older housing stock, constructed at a time when use of asbestos and lead paint and lead pipes were standard construction material. It is understandable there is a risk not only to these neighborhoods, but to these homes.”

Donnell White, executive director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, has reached the same conclusion. “Michigan has a much bigger problem than Flint,” White said.

“You find these kind of triggers no matter if you are talking water quality, air quality, housing stock issues and lead paint – these demarcate along communities of color and communities of high poverty. You see it in Detroit and Hamtramck, where the lead levels in kids are just as high as in Flint, if not higher.

“It is a huge area for us to do a lot of work in.”

Indeed, analysis of EPA and census data by Bridge Magazine found that minorities are more likely to live in areas with the oldest homes – homes that are more likely to contain lead-based paint, which was not banned until 1978 – and even more likely live in areas of highest pollution. Low-income residents are also more likely to live in areas of high pollution.

A task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder issued a stern report in March on the Flint water crisis, calling it a story of “government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.” The group specifically noted that the Flint community most affected by the lead-poisoned water is heavily poor and African American.

“When we convened,” Ken Sikkema, Republican co-chair of the task force, told legislators on Tuesday, according to the Detroit News, “we had the same conversation that a lot of people have had, both privately and publicly: If this had happened in East Grand Rapids, in Kent County where I live, or in Bloomfield Hills in Oakland County, would the same result have occurred?”

The task force also found the state's controversial emergency manager law contributed to the lead contamination crisis by removing governmental checks and balance and called for alternatives to the law so elected officials can be kept more engaged.

Mohai, the U-M expert, agreed with the task force’s findings, calling Flint “the most egregious case” of environmental injustice he has seen.

But Mohai's work indicates that Flint is only one of several areas in Michigan where poor, minority populations pay a heavier price for pollution.

Hazards of living near industry

Mohai was a key researcher in a 2010 study of toxic chemical releases in Michigan, built on 2006 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That study concluded that zip code 48217 in southwest Detroit was the most polluted in the state. It is a grim, blighted area bisected by Interstate 75 and surrounded by towering smokestacks used for coal and steel production, salt mining and tar sands crude oil refining. It is about 85 percent black, with more than 40 percent living in poverty. Five nearby zip codes also made the state top 10 pollution list.

In 2011, Mohai looked at public schools across Michigan and calculated their exposure to air pollution. He found 82 percent of black 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 the 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.”

The study also found that air pollution concentrations were “statistically significant predictors” of poorer student performance, even when correcting for variables such as school expenditures and student demographics.

National studies have found that minority communities are more exposed to these pollutants, presumably because they are more likely to live closer to freeways and in neighborhoods abutting industrial sites. Asthma is also tied to agents in the home, including indoor pollen, mold and second-hand smoke, with studies finding that 40 percent of attacks are linked to factors in the home.

In the 50 Michigan zip codes with the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations, 76 percent of residents are minorities and 35 percent are living in poverty.

The residue of poverty

In Detroit, Henry Ford Health System physician Elliott Attisha connects the city's high rates of asthma to a treacherous cocktail of environmental factors, including airborne pollution and asthma-triggering agents in the home. But he said it's also tied to the residues of poverty that both limit access to health care and can elevate stress, which in turn is linked to asthma.

“A lot of these homes don't have a car,” said Attisha, who directs a mobile health program aimed at asthma and other health care issues that affect Detroit school children.

“They don't have a primary care physician. When you are not getting health care, that's when you end up in the emergency room. In some of these homes you have mold, you have cockroaches, you have smoke, all these exposures that can play a role in asthma.”

Attisha cited a 2015 study which examined psychological causes of advanced stress on children, such as divorce, drug use in the home, the incarceration of a parent or witnessing adults in the home punch or beat each other up.

In homes with one of those factors present, the study found a 28 percent greater chance a child would develop asthma. In homes with four factors, the likelihood of developing asthma was 73 percent greater.

“Poverty creates anxiety. There is a correlation between anxiety and asthma,” Elliott said.

“I can’t breathe”

A couple years ago, Kyaira Hailey, 29, had her first skirmish with the fear of asthma when her young daughter, DeAsia Matthews, began complaining: “I can't breathe.”

A single mother who lives on Detroit's west side, Kyaira summoned her sister, who was living in an apartment across the hall. Her sister has a son of her own with asthma, so Kyaira figured she would know what to do.

Her sister looked at DeAsia, now 5, whose abdomen was caved in as she made wheezing sounds as she struggled to breathe.

“She told me I need to take her in fast.”

She rushed to the emergency room, where DeAsia, now 5, was put on a machine to help her breathe. She has been to the emergency room a few times since, often in winter when cold temperatures aggravate her asthma. She now has two different inhalers, which dispense two types of medication.

Though it has been frightening, Hailey said she at least feels better equipped to deal with the next crisis.

“Now I know what to do,” she said.

In Grand Rapids, Rita Rodriguez, 19, recalled a series of events that led to the day she learned how dangerous lead could be to her young son, Santiago, now 2.

A little more than a year ago, she had taken him to an appointment at a federal nutritional supplement program for low-income mothers, where he had his blood drawn in a finger-prick test. It came back at 19 micrograms of lead per deciliter – nearly four times the level of five micrograms per deciliter at which the Centers for Disease Control recommends action for children to reduce the level.

A follow-up test on Santiago using drawn blood from a doctor's visit found his level to be 11, lower, but still concerning.

Not long after, a social worker visited the rental home she shares with her boyfriend and mother-in-law.

“She tell us what lead does,” Rodriguez said. “She said it goes to the brain. She said the kids don't grow like they are supposed to. I was scared.”

Rodriguez lives in zip code 49507, where 11 percent of children under 6 had lead levels above five micrograms per deciliter in 2014, 13th highest in Michigan. By comparison, in the central Detroit zip code of 48206 – 93 percent black, with 45 percent in poverty – 20.3 percent of children under 6 tested above the action level for lead, tops in the state.

(In Flint – in the midst of its water crisis in 2015 – 6.4 percent of children under 6 tested above five micrograms per deciliter for lead)

Troubling lead levels are not confined to minority or poor neighborhoods.

Zip code 49073 – a rural area in Barry County that includes the towns of Nashville and Maple Grove southeast of Grand Rapids – is 98 percent white with just 17 percent living in poverty. That area tested second highest in the state

But a closer look suggests its lead test level in 2014, in which 17.6 percent of children under 6 tested above five micrograms, could be the result of a small sample size rather than a true measure of the problem. Its percentage of levels above five micrograms was 9 percent in 2013, fell to 3.8 percent in 2013 before jumping above 17 percent in 2014. But those were based on just 67, 52 and 51 tests, respectively. By comparison, the results in Detroit zip code 48206 were based on 790, 701 and 651 tests, respectively.

Numerous studies have confirmed the dangers of lead in children, linking it to poor school performance, loss of IQ points and even violent crime.

In 1978, lead was banned in paint and other consumer goods made and sold in the United States. But lead paint in old buildings and surrounding soil is still considered the primary source of lead poisoning in children, as lead-contaminated dust can remain even after surfaces have been stripped or painted over. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that 86 percent of homes built before 1940 may contain lead paint.

Taking a long-term view, far fewer Michigan children are testing positive for lead poisoning in recent decades. In 2012, 4.5 percent of those tested in Michigan showed elevated lead levels, more than five times than a decade earlier.

The cost of removing lead, or not

HUD also concluded that homes with poor and minority residents are more likely to contain lead paint hazards. Young children most typically ingest lead as they crawl on their hands and knees, pick up dust and dirt and put their hands in their mouths. They may ingest it from soil surrounding the home as well.

And while there are fewer immediate remedies for residents living in neighborhoods exposed to airborne pollution, the remedy for in-home lead paint exposure is straightforward – if vastly underfunded.

Last year, Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told Bridge Magazine: “This is still an issue. It’s not going away.”

After the visit with the social worker to the Grand Rapids home of Rita Rodriguez, lead paint specialists arrived with X-ray equipment to detect any lead that might be in the home. After finding it in a couple windows, workers replaced those and other windows in the home. In his last blood test, Santiago registered three micrograms per deciliter, not perfect but below federal action levels. The family suspects Santiago may have been contaminated in a previous, older house he lived in as well.

One program dedicated to reducing lead exposure is Get The Lead Out, a partnership launched in 2005 that includes the city of Grand Rapids and Healthy Homes Coalition of West Michigan, a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate hazards in the homes of low-income families.

The coalition's director, Paul Haan, said there's a long way to go before lead paint is eliminated. He estimated there are 40,000 homes in Grand Rapids that contain lead paint. Most of its funding comes from the federal government, $16 million as of May 2015.

Statewide, it is estimated there are 1.2 million occupied housing units with lead paint. At an average cost of $10,000 per home to remove lead paint, it would cost $12 billion complete that job in Michigan. But in recent years, Haan said, the total in state and federal funding for lead paint removal has been well under $10 million a year. Thus far, Grand Rapids has remediated just over 1,300 homes.

“We are talking a generation to get this done,” Haan said.

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Thu, 04/14/2016 - 11:14am
Is it "environmental injustice", or is it "injustice by new technology"? Anyone who lives in a house built prior to 1980 has the possibility of lead in the indoor plumbing system introduced by plumbing fixtures. The same for lead paint, asbestos, and mercury. Many of us grew up with the same exposures that are pointed out in this story. As children, we chewed on the windowsills painted with lead paint. We rolled mercury on our school desks, polished coins with it, and marveled at the ability of a metal to be liquid. I had a roll of asbestos paper which I spread on the top of my basement science lab and played on it for many years. Most of us did pretty good in life, becoming doctors, engineers, lawyers, and business people. Now we have the technology and equipment to measure down to parts per billion. I'm sure that in the future, we will be measuring parts per trillion. Is it an injustice that we grew up in an era when people were not aware of the dangers in certain products or that the effect of those products could not be measured in such small quantities? A recent article in the Free Press talks of copper poisoning in Detroit schools. How many houses are recently built with copper pipe? Is plastic pipe any safer?
Barry Visel
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 1:03pm
I had similar thoughts while reading this piece. As an early 'boomer', I was born in the 40's, raised in the 50's, and was certainly surrounded by lead paint, lead gasoline exhaust, coal burning furnaces in homes, etc. Are there any studies of our age group which link our surroundings to asthma?....did we have it but just dealt with it differently? we have higher documented brain damage than kids growing up today? Also, is the use of hospitalization rates for asthma a fair proxy for total rates of asthma today? a trip to the ER counted differently than a trip to a doctor or a clinic? Lot's of questions.
Sun, 04/17/2016 - 6:03pm
I too grew up in late 40s and 50s in Midland and often had problems breathing the air which often had a greenish color - not to mention drinking the water. Many graduates of MHS became highly successful professionals after surviving in a very toxic environment. It would be interesting to know how many of these kids with asthma have, in addition to dysfunctional homes, are being pumped full of antibiotics from the time they are born. Probably one of the biggest causes of chronic health problems in this country today - and it isn't a race issue!
Kim Hunter
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 12:13pm
Thanks for this article. It makes many good points about environmental racism. Dr. Mohai's work need to be heralded more as does that of his colleague Dr. Bunyan Bryant, both of these folks spent decades sounding the alarm about the sickening intersection of race and exposure to pollution. On that note, I want to take serious issue with the term "environmental injustice." It is environmental racism. Dr. Bryant's research shows that race is an even more important factor than class when it comes to a family's likely exposure to toxics and pollutants.
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 12:45pm
Is the health/medical community proponents of ‘environmental injustice’, or does seem to be those with a social agenda? ‘Environmental injustice’ was touted as a critical issue by the EPA back in the 1980s, it was promoted as a cause of the social ills of groups in Michigan. Its prominence faded because it was social based and not science based. If Mr. Roelof read the Bridge last week he would have found an ideal situation to validate ‘environmental injustice’. Had Mr. Roelof investigated this town that has been in a so called ‘environmental injustice’ zone, similar to Mr. Roelof charts, for over a hundred years, he would have found a town’s industry [chemical manufacturing] that would seem to be, using Roelof’s criteria, a very high risk case for such injustice. He could have seen what a 100 years of experience of people living in such an environment might be, the demographics, the health. I wonder why such an isolate setting that should be ripe for ‘environmental injustice’ wasn’t in the article. My concern is that this article glosses over the impact of lifestyle on health issues such as asthma, that a smoker, a particular scent, even an air freshener has the potential to trigger a severe attack. There is no denying that chemicals are the predominant cause of such attacks, but the source can be most critical. If that source is ignored because of claims it is from what the individual can’t control rather than what they can it is likely the attacks will continue.
Mon, 04/18/2016 - 12:27pm
Not necessarily Racism, but definitely Classism. The poor have fewer resources and advocates to get our of poor environmental areas or to renovate or deal with such issues.
John Grant
Mon, 04/18/2016 - 6:21pm
I'm sure Kim Hunter remembers our active and prolonged opposition to the Detroit Incinerator, which was my introduction to the melding of racism and the environmental movement. I'm sure he remembers a bunch of white and black, radical, hippie types trying to bring the racism of such a construction to the attention of an entrenched African-American Detroit government, to no avail. This is not meant to give ammunition to the right wingnuts; I mean to point out how little we all knew, and how economic imperatives often over-ruled what was best and healthy for our communities. We do know that we were right and the incinerator has poisoned Detroiters for decades.
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 2:12pm
Here is the glaring hole in this article: The industry, lead paint, and lead solder were in these neighborhoods long ago. Older cities have zoning which permits heavy industry at a much higher percentage than suburban towns. As neighborhoods grew older the original homeowners moved to the suburbs and the housing prices in the older neighborhoods went down.In the oldest neighborhoods you will find the cheapest housing. This is a result of market pricing, not "environmental racism", which implies pollution is more prevalent because of race instead of economics. Once again Bridge is doing a disservice to the truth by failing to point out such obvious facts in its stories. Race baiting is not a compassionate or helpful tactic.
Chuck Jordan
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 2:14pm
Just so happens that most poor minorities also don't have adequate health insurance and so they go to emergency rooms.
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 2:48pm
Chuck interestingly it has proven that with ACA that the poor go to the emergency room more than ever before! The incentives are in place for all involved that, Why not?
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 3:03pm
An other angle on the stupidity of the term "Environmental Justice", many of the homes lived in by the poor today were built and lived in by the rich and middle class 50 and 100 years ago, when we can assume that they were exposed to the same hazards then as the poor are today (and probably more). Of course that doesn't fit into the narrative of class oppression that is so popular in certain quarters.
Jim Rowlett
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 6:20pm
Oh, really! No matter what the problem, it must be racial. One of your major sources, U of M professor is founder of the Environmental Justice Program. I'll bet he's objective. Poverty is poverty whether you are Black or White. As one who has worked on Poverty Reduction for about 15 years, I would bet the heavily White high poverty communities throughout the state have the same ratio of houses with lead paint and lead pipes as in Black concentration communities. This is not the commentary for why people are poor. I am all for helping people solve a problem, White, Black, Native American or whatever, but to define every problem starting with racial is just crap.
Sat, 04/16/2016 - 5:20pm
As one who lives in Owosso, Michigan where residents burn, our pollution is quite a problem. We have been trying to get it stopped to no avail. The DEQ says their hands are tied. We know by who. We keep being told our City Council has to change our burning ordinance, but they refuse. We are a city, not a camp ground. We have a high death rate from cancer, a big pocket of Parkinson's and MS, not to mention a lot of Asthma. Doctors have written letters begging our city to stop the burning and yet it continues. I thank God for every day I am still alive, as I am severely asthmatic and fires near me never get put out by officials and tickets are rarely written. They say it is fine to burn.
Sun, 04/17/2016 - 8:05am
I also have wondered for many years about why concern was not focused on any of the adults who grew up in these homes that are now old and lived in by people who are poorer than the inhabitants from years ago. Is it possible that when lead paint is still relatively new that it does not make much dust or does not leach out the lead? Homes were better kept up when lived in by people who could afford to keep them up. Did that make a difference? Also, the older the house the more it needs repair and the harder it is to keep thoroughly clean (I've lived in quite a variety). Are comparison studies made, between those who lived in the "dangerous" houses years ago and those who live in them now? Are journalists asking these questions of those who do the science? And one more thing, did all paints prior to 1978 contain lead? Which ones did? I also see this as a problem connected with poverty (only older and more worn out houses are affordable), more than directly with racism. Poverty, however is often very much connected to racism. So this may be an indirect consequence of racism. If racism were to completely disappear, the houses would not, and we would still have this problem for the poorer people who live in the houses. And the question still remains, "What can we do to solve this problem?"
RC veronc
Sun, 04/17/2016 - 10:49am
If you want to see a new failure. Go north westside bay city, mi and smell the stench being discharged by M$ sugar plant. Numerous MDEQ, EPA complaints nothing. Company PR about experimental process, being worked on, same story for pass 5-yrs.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 04/17/2016 - 10:56am
Excellent post Salle. Lots of questions need to be answered, but to deny institutional racism is part of the problem is part of the problem. It is similar to the argument over whether the Civil War was fought over States rights or Slavery. Everyone knows it was over the States' right to own slaves, but people still want to believe it was all States Rights. I believe that when education is equal for all students in all districts in our state for a generation, then we will be able to get past these debates over economic and environmental injustice.
Sun, 04/17/2016 - 8:32pm
Mr. Jordan, “I believe that when education is equal for all students in all districts in our state for a generation, then we will be able to get past these debates over economic and environmental injustice.” I wonder if you can define ‘equal education.’ For if you were to truly believe in ‘equal education’ you would have to remove all the difference between the children, you would have stop the caring parents from sacrificing to provide their children with a safe and nurturing environments, you would have to have all course material presented in the same way in every classroom at the same time, you would have to lower standards to the lowest teacher performance allowed in the classrooms. In order to achieve ‘equal education’ you would have to make the system performing at one level [the lowest level]. If you did all that I suspect you would be one of the more vocal against the system. The reality is that there is equal opportunity in access to education, not necessary same quality of education simply because each student and their environments are different, for far too many reasons to practically address. What you need to accept is that life isn't ‘fair’, go to your local pediatrics wards if you doubt that. The part you seem to be railing against is the probability of individual success rather than what the system makes available. Since at the core of probability it is the individual with all their traits and uniqueness so you cannot make the probability equal. And you surely will never make the results equal. The best I can offer is be like those working in pediatric wards, try to find out what works [how and why, in this case, did others succeed in our education system] and how can we use that so the students today and tomorrow have access to that knowledge and tools. I believe rather than focus on the system, find those that succeed and those that fail. Ask what the barriers they individually are facing, ask why and how they are addressing those barriers [working around them or giving up], listen to what they say [not what you want to hear] and turn that into the tools for other students to use.
Chuck Jordan
Tue, 04/19/2016 - 9:21pm
Duane, Schools with qualified teachers in each subject all year. Schools with a broad curriculum including art and music and even science with labs. Schools with textbooks, teaching materials, desks for all students. Schools with heat in winter and not so hot students can't breathe. If you think "there is equal opportunity in access to education," you need to visit some urban, minority districts all over Michigan. Yes I know life is not fair. But we can still try, at least for our kids.
Wed, 04/20/2016 - 12:23pm
Mr. Jordan, In all the differences you mention, hot and cold, subject matter, in teaching materials, etc. you fail to mention the student. That suggests that you feel education is simply something that a school can open the top of a child's head and pours in the knowledge and skills. For if your view of educational ‘fairness’ were true then at least within any given classroom the results would be the same, but that doesn't appear to be the case. If even in the best or worst of the classrooms there is a difference in learning then that leaves the student as the determining factor. Why not invest in understanding what is creating that difference in results in a classroom that is providing a ‘fairness’ [all of your criteria are the same] of educational experience? Many will claim it has to do with learning capacity, with being ‘privileged’, with their ethnicity, the financial status of the parent, etc., if there are some in any of these categories that succeed then the premise fails. Why are so many people so afraid of considering the student’s role/responsibilities in their learning process? Why not consider the student’s desire to learn the means they use to overcome all the barriers to learning? Why aren't we talking about the impact of the micro culture that surrounds each student and how that may be changed to reinforce learning? There are so many examples of students succeeding in one facet of their lives while failing to learn the academics, why not try to understand the how and why of that? Consider team athletics and see what works there to see how it can be applied to academics? Why only focus on the parts [classroom] that when equal deliver unequal results? Why not invest in understanding the student side of learning to how and why they achieve unequal results?
Mon, 04/18/2016 - 12:29pm
Just pointing out: Lead paint and Lead in the water are not air pollution; and lead paint isn't necessarily an instant doom for people. Don't eat the paint, get rid of paint flakes & debris, etc. And the water issues in flint still need to be fixed; how long are those folks expected to live on a few bottles of water a day for drinking, bathing, cleaning, etc?
Mon, 04/18/2016 - 4:46pm
Oh please...three times to the ER....go to the family physician....this is the same parenting style that has their children get their breakfasts...lunches....and in some districts suppers through the schools. What he heck do these parents do all day and don't tell me they're out working to support their families...last time I looked pollution whether gaseous or liquid, does not have a clue on the public that it is affecting.