Detroit study to examine effects of bad air quality

By Ariana Assaf, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 26, 2014

As Detroit seeks to revitalize itself in the wake of bankruptcy, human health concerns such as air pollution are receiving increased attention.

The School of Public Health has partnered with five other organizations to continue researching Detroit’s air quality and hopes to eventually recommend environmental policy changes. An announcement from the University last Tuesday said the collaborative group received a $2.8 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to support the research.

Health Behavior and Health Education Prof. Amy Jo Schulz and Environmental Health Sciences Prof. Stuart Batterman are co-principal investigators in the Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments project. They are working to understand why health problems like cardiovascular diseases and children’s respiratory issues are so prevalent in Detroit.

About 15 years ago, University researchers began examining how and why poor air quality in Detroit can be linked to an increase in the likelihood of developing health problems, and how to find solutions.

Batterman said the city’s uniquely high level of industrialization has played a role in reducing air quality. Large amounts of traffic that travel through Detroit on a daily basis also contribute to the problem.

As a result, cardiovascular mortality rates and asthma rates are about 50 percent higher in Detroit than in the rest of the state, Schulz said. Infant mortality rates are also significantly higher.

“All three of those health effects have been associated with poor air quality,” she said.

The studies included monitoring air quality on a daily basis for three years to measure particulate matter levels — harmful elements in air that result from pollution. The data showed that average blood pressure increased when air pollution increased.

Other studies examined asthma outcomes and infant mortality outcomes in relation to air pollution levels. Batterman said observational methods are used to identify which people face more exposure and how that relates to negative health effects.

The researcher’s study is attempting to synthesize information about the adverse effects of air pollution to create a plan to lower pollution levels. Batterman said some specific policy changes might include putting controls on factories in an effort to decrease emissions and considering land use changes to create buffers to shield neighborhoods from air pollution. Trees and shrubs can also act as vegetative buffers by absorbing pollutants. However, sound evidence regarding their effectiveness is minimal.

Part of the current effort will involve looking into what kinds of buffers are most effective, and in what kinds of conditions are most conduvtive to implementing those strategies.

On a household level, air filters can help improve indoor air quality by reducing the concentration of particulate matter. They have been used in homes as part of intervention studies, which involve changing an aspect of a person’s environment to test for health improvements.

“We have to get policy people up to speed in terms of thinking that these are good options to consider to reduce air pollution,” Batterman said.