48217 - a Toxic Tour of Southwest Detroit

Some mornings I wake up and have no idea that before the sun sets I’ll have seen, heard, and smelled things that change my world view. That’s what happened to me when I bounced cheerfully up the steps and into the hired school bus to take a Toxic Tour of Zip Code 48217, in Southwest Detroit. Many of you may never have been on a Toxic Tour, but I know you’ve all looked down from a bridge or highway as you drove over dozens of storage tanks, smoke stacks, rubbish heaps, manufacturing and processing plants, large industrial equipment, and other unrecognizable structures from which chemical smells wafted into your car. Maybe you’ve even rolled up the windows from the stink as you passed by – I know that I do. On a Toxic Tour I get to join up with community leaders to learn about what all that stuff is, from the ground level. No bird’s eye view on the Toxic Tour!

We started our tour in the play field of a community center that was bordered by highways so noisy with speeding traffic that we could barely hear our tour guide – the brilliant Ms. Theresa Landrum - only a few feet away. The acrid stench of industrial sulfur fumes was so strong that we could taste it, and it was giving us headaches. Maybe that was from Marathon refinery’s ‘tank farm’ of storage tanks right across the highway from the play field.

The industrial facilities in 48217 go on for miles in all directions, and include many oil and gas refineries, more tank farms, several asphalt plants, a lot of tar-sands refineries, and huge piles of petroleum coke (petcoke) along the riverbank where locals are fishing.(see more about the industries polluting this neighborhood in Mother Jones, October 2012 here)

There are people living in that industrial wasteland! There are well-kept homes with flowers and vegetable gardens in the yard, next to boarded up houses and empty lots where the companies have bought out homes and pushed out neighbors to accommodate facility expansions. And, the people that live there have too-high levels of asthma, cancer, and other pollution-related health problems.

In fact, Detroit’s cancer rate was 600 cases per 100,000 people in 2009 (the most recent year for which data is available), much higher than the 544 cases/100,000 people statewide, or the 523 cases/100,000 nationwide. And, by the way, in Detroit the cancer rate by race for white people is 584/100,000 and for black people its 692/100,000. And, that is a grave – literally – Environmental Injustice.

48217 is the most polluted community in the state, and Detroit was named the second most toxic city in the nation (after Atlanta) by Forbes magazine in 2009, with 68 superfund sites and a total of 281 industries that use toxic chemicals.

With help from Global Community Monitor, the community was able to conduct its own air monitoring. The air sampling in 48217 proved that the air is contaminated with toxic, cancer-causing industrial chemicals. Ms. Theresa told us that when the community again sampled the air a few days later, after alerting the company and getting its permission to take samples, the levels were way down.

Ms. Landrum is educated as a journalist and writer, is a cancer survivor, and is a kick-butt-take-names community leader and activist. And, she isn’t alone - the 48217 community is packed with bold, brave, and whip-smart neighbors that love their families and their communities (see Sierra Club for more information).

But, while I can tour their neighborhood, write about it in blogs, and support their struggle for justice with time and money, ultimately I do not share with Detroit citizens their disproportionate burden of pollution, or its associated disease risk. And that is why the struggle for Environmental Justice among disproportionately impacted communities is so fundamentally about human rights. Because, it isn’t fair!

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Health program

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