By Raquel Garcia, Executive Director, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision
I moved to Southwest Detroit in 2005. A good friend drew me to the neighborhood. Every year, she would throw parties and I could hear happy music from other houses along with ice cream trucks and the excited voices of children buying ice cream treats. When I found a house down the street, the thought of becoming part of this vibrant neighborhood felt like a dream come true. After becoming one of the neighbors though, issues emerged.
Neighbors were organizing to count how many semi-trucks were using residential streets to access the bridge to the north and the highway going south (according to SEMCOG, 650-750 trucks travel residential roads in Southwest Detroit during a 12-hour period on a weekday). They were requesting signs from city council that prohibited trucks on the residential streets. And, on occasion, when a sour smell filled the air, a flurry of emails would exchange on how to report the odor.
According to a Planet Detroit article written in September of 2021, “Though trucks regularly idle in residential neighborhoods throughout the day, the Detroit Police Department hasn’t written a single ticket because the anti-idling law was flawed… it requires police to observe a vehicle idling for at least five minutes before writing a warning, and there’s no system for tracking warnings. The department also doesn’t have the resources or manpower to effectively enforce the law.”
The environmental health problems in my community hit home when my three-year-old son tested positive for lead contamination. At that moment, my eyes were opened in a way that I cannot describe, and questions came flooding in: What had I done? What could I have done differently? What can I do now?
The prospect of jumping in and getting involved was stressful. However, the idea of doing nothing was even more distressing, so I started by understanding the history and current conditions of environmental health issues in the area. The situation looked bleak:
- According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in 2021 the prevalence of asthma among Detroit adults was 46% higher than in Michigan as a whole
- Emissions from cars, trucks and buses can make it more difficult to breathe deeply, cause shortness of breath, cause coughing or scratchy throat, aggravate lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, increase the frequency of asthma attacks, and continue to damage the lungs even when symptoms disappear
- Every year nearly 500,000 U.S. kids have elevated blood lead levels and in 2019, 0.25% of them lived in Detroit
- A survey conducted by the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition and the Detroit Health Department found that children and seniors living on a truck route or within 500 feet of Interstate 75 suffer asthma at 2-3 times the local average
What We Can Do
In Detroit, we are advocating for policies that address the impacts that industry has on our health: vegetative buffers around manufacturing and industrial sites to help mitigate pollution; safe truck routes to move heavy trucks from residential to more industrialized roads; an anti-idling policy to prohibit all motor vehicles in from idling more than five minutes within a 60-minute period.
I used to worry that because I’m not a scientist or environmental expert, I couldn’t really understand or comment on what was happening, but Detroit is filled with organizations focused on the same things my neighborhood is concerned with such as the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Ecology Center, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, and others. They provide technical advice and scientific research to support our efforts to improve our community. The three policies I mentioned – vegetative buffers, anti-idling, and safe truck routes – will help reduce asthma rates and other pollution-related health impacts.
What can YOU do? You can work with us and support us as we impress upon the City of Detroit that we have the right to breathe — our kids have the right to breathe – and by cooperating with community residents, the City can improve our air.