Air Quality

Issues Of The Environment: Addressing Michigan's Air Quality


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Air Pollution


The air you breathe may actually being making you sick. In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair speaks with Kindra Weid, Health Fellow for MI Air, MI Health, to discuss air quality and health in Michigan.

Listen 9:07

Issues of the Environment: 04/06/16


* In terms of pollution, Michigan’s air quality is among the worst in the nation, leading to high rates of air quality related illnesses. Outdoor air pollution has been shown to cause or exacerbate: respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD, cardiovascular diseases, lung, urinary tract, and bladder cancer, type II diabetes, and developmental disorders such as autism.

* Kindra Weid, Health Fellow for MI Air MI Health and a nurse, says that transitioning to clean energy sources and being more energy efficient will reduce pollution, improving health outcomes and saving us money on health care.

* In Michigan, reducing air pollution is considered an environmental justice issue because the worst air quality tends to be in areas where lower-income and minority individuals live. Rather than lobby for separate representation for each impacted minority, MI Air, MI Health takes the position that legislation that improves health is beneficial to all, especially the minority groups that are most affected.

* Air quality in our listening area is declining, with Washtenaw, Macomb, Lenawee, and Oakland counties all receiving a grade of “F” for ozone in 2015 from the American Lung Association.

Diseases Impacted by Air Quality

ASTHMA: 11.5% of adults and 9.2% of children in Michigan have asthma. That’s nearly 25% higher than the national average. Since 2001, Michigan’s asthma rates have consistently worsened.

CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE: Michigan has the 6th highest percentage of residents living with cardiovascular disease and the 10th highest death rate from cardiovascular disease in the nation.

COPD: Afflicting 8.8% of Michiganders, our state has the 6th highest prevalence of COPD.

LUNG CANCER: Michigan’s lung cancer rate of 66.2 per 100,000 residents is worse than 33 other states.

DIABETES (Type II): The frequency of diabetes in Michigan at 10.4% is higher than in 31 other states.

AUTISM: The Michigan Department of Education reported in 2012 that approximately 16,590 children were receiving services for autism spectrum disorder. In 2007, only 4 states had a higher autism population than Michigan. Fine particulate air pollution is associated with an increased risk of autism. Women exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter specifically during pregnancy—particularly during the third trimester—may face up to twice the risk of having a child with autism than mothers living in areas with low particulate matter.

CANCER: Air pollution is now linked to cancer. A recent study has determined that air pollution as a whole is a cancer causing carcinogen and causes lung cancer and is linked to increased risk for bladder cancer.

Air Quality in the WEMU Listening Area

Local air quality is declining. In 2015, twenty Michigan counties received a failing grade for high ozone days, a major increase from the five counties in 2013. In 2015, Washtenaw County received an “F” grade for ozone from the American Lung Association, however they gained an “A” for low levels of particulate pollution. Macomb, Oakland, and Lenawee had the same grades, but Wayne received an “F” in both areas.

Coal-fired Power

Coal-fired power plant pollution has negative health impacts. Research shows that our state’s nine oldest coal-fired power plants emit pollution that is linked to 68,000 cases of asthma exacerbation and 180 premature deaths in Michigan each year.

More than half of Michigan’s coal plants are more than 40 years old. And nearly a third of Michigan’s coal plants began operation more than 50 years ago. Many of these older plants are scheduled to be mothballed or retired in the coming years because they are inefficient and pose risks to human health.

Coal-fired power plants cost Michiganders billions in healthcare costs. Pollution from Michigan’s nine oldest coal-fired power plants is linked to health complications that cost Michiganders $1.5 billion per year, or $500 for a family of four.

Recent Failures

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says Michigan recently missed a deadline to submit plans for reducing hazardous emissions in a high asthma disease area despite the state's assertion that air pollution levels there have already fallen below federal standards. The EPA requires a plan to bring levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas under a new federal threshold passed five years ago. In Michigan, those areas considered "non-attainment" and are near the refineries in Detroit. These neighborhoods are very low-income and predominantly black, and failure to reduce pollution has long been considered a prime example of environmental injustice.

The MDEQ is in the final stages of granting the sprawling Marathon refinery a brand-new permit, which will let it emit an additional 22 tons of sulfur dioxide a year in an area that already exceeds federal standards for that gas. The 22 tons of SO 2, the MDEQ insists, aren’t much. That’s true, to an extent; alone, that amount of SO 2 is not catastrophic. But the permit doesn’t take into consideration how these new air toxins will mix with all the other pollutants being dumped on the people of River Rouge. That’s because the Clean Air Act, the nation’s only omnibus air pollution bill, doesn’t have anything that considers toxic cocktails—and so puts limits on only individual toxins, and never the mix.

The act became law in 1970, with the primary purpose of identifying and limiting major pollutants for a country that had never regulated even the most obvious of them, like carbon monoxide. Since then, the most recent major revision to that fairly rudimentary set of objectives was in 1990, when a series of changes led to more comprehensive permitting procedures and better pollution monitoring. That’s more or less what we’re left with now, 26 years later. Science has learned a lot about what makes people sick in those 26 years—particularly, that there are combined effects from the plumes of gas and particles, visible and otherwise, that billow from every factory, power plant, manufacturing outfit and tailpipe. We now have proof that, for example, breathing in nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide do greater damage combined than either would alone. But that knowledge is not reflected in how the government regulates them. “At this time, our understanding of the science does not allow us to set health-based standards that address potential cumulative or additive impacts of exposure to multiple pollutants,” the EPA wrote in an email when I asked why not. Bob Sills, a toxicologist for the MDEQ, says he’s been asking the EPA about its progress on this issue for “about 20 years.” The agency tried, several years ago, to come up with a way to take into account the combined contribution of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide to acid rain. “Their scientific advisers told them it was not scientifically valid enough to proceed with it,” Sills says.

One problem, explains Stuart Batterman, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, is that there are too many data gaps in toxicology to meet the high threshold of certainty required by the regulatory agencies.

Michigan and the CPP

The Clean Power Plan—the centerpiece of President Obama’s climate action initiative—promises to be the most important action the government can take to combat climate change before it’s too late to avoid the worst impacts. The plan also is critical to spurring an international agreement to slow the impacts of climate change at this December’s U.N. climate change conference in Paris.

While there are limits on emissions of arsenic, mercury, and other dangerous pollutants from power plants, there have been none for carbon pollution—until now. Now, the EPA is using its authority under the Clean Air Act, the nation’s bedrock air pollution law, to cut carbon pollution from the electric power sector. It proposed in June 2014 reducing emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The National Resources Defense Council favors even more aggressive action to better protect the health of our children and future generations. They believe the Clean Power Plan can achieve greater pollution reductions—a 40 percent cut by 2030—by fully recognizing the vast potential for scaling up energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the United States. “The administration can make this good plan even better,” said David Doniger, director of NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air Program.

Either way, the Clean Power Plan will move America toward a cleaner, healthier environment for future generations while ensuring an ongoing supply of the reliable, affordable power needed for economic growth. The plan will reduce not only carbon pollution but hundreds of thousands of tons of other harmful air pollutants from existing power plants, such as sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, preventing up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in just the first year of implementation, according to the EPA.

Utility customers will benefit from a projected 8 percent decline in electricity bills by 2030. And the plan will spur innovation and investment in cleaner energy and low-carbon technologies, generating hundreds of thousands of jobs. States are given time and flexibility to develop strategies to meet carbon-reduction targets that best suit their own circumstances, based on their mix of energy sources. The EPA planned to issue the final carbon pollution guidelines by mid-summer 2015. States would have until the end of June 2016 to come up with their carbon-reduction plans.


In February, Michigan suspended its effort to comply with new federal carbon rules while it waits for courts to decide the future of the plan, the state said Tuesday. State energy administrators, however, will finish work underway to develop benchmarks it intended to use to determine when Michigan would meet targets under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan, which requires states to reduce emissions from coal-based power plants.

Under the plan, Michigan’s required emissions cut is 31 percent by 2030. The state had been required to submit a plan to the EPA by September detailing how it would comply with the plan. But the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay, halting implementation of the Clean Power Plan until federal courts rule in a lawsuit brought by more than 20 states.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette joined the lawsuit, which challenges the carbon rule as an over-extension of the EPA's authority. Schuette's position, however, contrasts with that of Governor Rick Snyder, who directed the state to develop its own compliance plan or risk having a federal decision imposed on Michigan.

Opposition to the CPP from Power Utilities in Michigan

"We will continue to support the development of an energy policy that it is adaptable, affordable, reliable and protective of the environment," the Michigan Agency for Energy said in a news release. "Regardless of the carbon rule outcome, the state must make important decisions regarding our energy future to ensure an improved planning process that is able to manage regulatory uncertainties like we have with the carbon rule stay."

Michigan's large utilities said they understand the state's decision to wait until questions about the Clean Power Plan's legality are answered. Said Detroit-based DTE Energy Co.: "Developing national energy policy is a complex process with a diversity of views nationally, so we understand, based on the recent Supreme Court stay of the Clean Power Plan, the Governor's stay on further development of our state's 15-year energy plan until federal regulations are clarified. Here at DTE, we intend to stay focused on what is important to our customers – providing, affordable, reliable and clean energy."

Michigan Legislation

The Legislature last year debated bills that would update Michigan’s 2008 energy law, though the legislation hasn’t seen much action yet in 2016. Provisions in the bills would end mandates that utilities meet specific renewable energy and efficiency targets and address the state's practice of letting some electric customers choose to leave their regulated utility in favor of buying power on the open market.

Environmental groups panned the decision, saying it shows inaction when the state instead should be proactive. "His decision to pull the plug on a common-sense plan to reduce carbon pollution in Michigan is shameful and is just another example of his failure to lead and protect Michigan’s families and natural resources," MikeBerkowitz, legislative and political director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter, said in a statement.

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice said clean energy is a public health priority, as is safe drinking water."This failure to lead the way on clean energy demonstrates once again that public health is not a priority of (Snyder's) administration," said Guy Williams, the organization's president and CEO. "In this day and age, it's unconscionable to take such a major step backwards when it comes to protecting not only low-income and vulnerable communities, but anyone, anywhere in Michigan."

The state's energy agency said the state will finish modeling scenarios it started to review in its compliance effort, "as those findings will be helpful for other planning and compliance activities."

Michigan Compliance by 2025

Energy administrators in December said Michigan should be in compliance with federal carbon regulations through at least 2025, since 25 coal-fired units will be off line by 2020 and assuming energy efficiency increases of 1 percent per year. The energy agency also said Tuesday that Snyder has joined with 16 other U.S. governors to sign the Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future, which commits participating states to "continue to diversify energy generation and expand clean energy sources, modernize energy infrastructure and encourage clean transportation options," according to a news release.

"While Governor Snyder has decided to suspend state work on the Clean Power Plan as the courts sort out its legalities, we support his commitment to continue developing a Michigan-first energy plan, and to turn his vision for renewable energy and energy efficiency expansion into legislation that will set performance goals and hold state utilities accountable for keeping costs low and reducing pollution," Larry Ward, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, said in a statement.

Disproportionate Impact on Poor Communities and Communities of Color

Environmental health research has indicated that the burden of air quality impacts resulting from emissions by local sources may be carried disproportionately by poor communities and communities of color. In one study, nearly 50% of the risks for premature death caused by power plant-related exposures were borne by the 25% of the population with less than high school education. This result reflected both higher background rates of mortality and higher relative risks for air pollution related to mortality for individuals with lower education. In addition, lower- income people and people of color have been found to be disproportionately exposed to air pollution because of their proximity to point and mobile sources of emissions. Low-income populations are also more likely to lack access to health care and to live in conditions associated with asthma exacerbations. Susceptibility to the negative effects of air pollution may also be the result of different baseline rates of air pollution or different responses to various levels of exposure.

About MI Air, MI Health Coalition

Rather than invite each affect minority group to present legislation related to their concerns about air pollution, MI Air, MI Health believes it is better to advocate for policies that impact public health as a whole, which has the effect of changing conditions for the poor and minorities too.

The MI Air, MI Health Coalition works to ensure that all Michigan communities have clean, healthy air. They organize health professionals across Michigan to advocate for policies that improve outdoor air quality, reduce negative health impacts caused by unhealthy outdoor air and climate change, and reduce healthcare costs associated with poor air quality. They are excited to announce their 2016 program to engage Michigan-based health professional students in policy and advocacy via our educational programming.

Initiatives of MI Air MI Health

Policy Calls: Policy calls take place monthly and are focused on reviewing legislative action taken by different stakeholders in the past month, as well as developing future strategies for advancing the mission of the coalition.

Health Professional Education Program: Kindra Wied oversees the MI Air, MI Health program which partners with various Michigan colleges and universities to offer a health professional education program to teach tomorrow’s health professionals about policy and advocacy. Our Coalition invites professors, instructors, and other leaders across the state to participate in this unique environmental health educational opportunity. We host this half-day program in Lansing in legislative offices. It includes a basic orientation to policy and advocacy work, a panel of current health professionals that have combined their clinical work with advocacy work, and a facilitated mock legislative testimony exercise. This program is flexible and can be adapted to specific areas of expertise, including medicine, nursing, social work, and public health. This content is adaptable for both classroom sessions and student organizations. Our current partners include theUniversity of Michigan School of Nursing and Michigan State University College of Nursing.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU. You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at