Toxic Town: Michigan’s most polluted zip code

Toxic Town: Michigan’s most polluted zip code
June 19, 2017 Bill Kubota
Photo courtesy of Bill Kubota, One Detroit/DPTV

Bill Kubota, One Detroit/Detroit Public Television for Great Lakes Now

“FINALLY, JUSTICE FOR FLINT”. That’s what’s posted on many social media pages  in the wake of the most severe charges yet stemming from the Flint water crisis.

Just this week, Michigan’s attorney general filed involuntary manslaughter charges against government officials related to a death linked to Flint’s contaminated water.

Flint’s problem started in 2014 when residents there discovered  toxic levels of lead in their bodies because of a cost-saving scheme that allowed lead to leach into the city’s water system.

Flint, populated predominately by African Americans, has come to symbolize institutional racism and neglect, raising the profile of the environmental justice movement in the U.S.

“Before the Flint water crisis nobody in the media was using the word environmental justice as far as I can tell,” says Professor Paul Mohai of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Photo courtesy of Bill Kubota, One Detroit/DPTV

Map of 48217 area code, courtesy of Bill Kubota

Mohai looked at air quality data in a part of Southwest Detroit, called 48217 for its zip code – predominately African American and surrounded by heavy industry.

He found 48217 to be most toxic zip code in Michigan.

The upside now?

48217 is getting more attention in the neighborhood’s fight for environmental justice there.

Reverend Alex Hill recognized the connection to Flint right away, “Some of the same toxins discovered in the water in Flint are actually in the air here in this community, so it took what happened in Flint to bring again notoriety to the battles that we’ve been fighting in the 48217 zip code.”

Photo courtesy of Bill Kubota, One Detroit/DPTV

Activists Theresa Landrum, Dr. Delores Leonard and Rhonda Anderson (hand raised) at a public hearing held by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, courtesy of Bill Kubota

In the back of Hill’s New Mount Hermon Baptist Church, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recently installed an air monitoring station thanks to the work of local activists Dr. Delores Leonard, Theresa Landrum and Rhonda Anderson. Anderson also works at Detroit’s Sierra Club office.

“We have a toxic soup down here,” says Landrum, of the emissions from all the factories, including steel mills, an oil refinery and coal burning power plant. “What is the byproduct of all these chemicals mixing in the air? If they find out one is toxic, then they find out two is toxic, when you combine two toxic things, isn’t that a toxic monster?”

While much of the concern is about the air in 48217, the residents here are the first to remind you they’re down near the Detroit River.

“Weather patterns go west to east,” Professor Mohai says, “It makes sense the air pollution is getting into the Great Lakes and into more local water supplies.”


This One Detroit video report first aired on Detroit Public Television’s MiWeek hosted by Christy McDonald and also appears on the Detroit Journalism Cooperative website. It was produced by Bill Kubota, Scott McCartney and Zosette Guir, voiced by Will Glover and edited by Jordan Wingrove and Angie Brayman.


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