Letter: Public health has to be state priority

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s recent consideration of a permit to increase toxic emissions from a local refinery provoked outrage throughout the region. While the request was eventually rescinded due to intense public pressure, the issues surrounding air pollution and the failure of MDEQ’s current policies has yet to be sufficiently examined.

We know that people who live in polluted areas often live shorter, more difficult lives as a result of heart disease, cancer, respiratory conditions and other devastating health problems that are created or worsened by air pollution. We also know that people of color and the poor are much more likely to live in areas with the worst air quality, contributing to shortened life spans.

What we do not know is which emissions are responsible for which adverse health outcomes. This serves as a pretext to continually deny positive action to regulate air pollution. Without scientific data on what toxins create negative health effects, corporations are able to easily deny the human cost of their pollution. While regulatory bodies like the MDEQ are designed to protect the health of Michigan citizens, they have instead allowed polluters to continually increase emissions for decades without requiring comprehensive health impact studies.

This disregard is unacceptable. An additional concern is the disproportionate affect on Michigan’s communities of color; when air quality is tied so closely to poverty, and when the health of communities of color is much more likely to be negatively impacted by air pollution, the MDEQ’s inaction constitutes a violation of civil rights.

The absence of comprehensive health impact studies from massive corporations, coupled with our government’s unwillingness to enforce air-quality regulations, has created an environment in which children in Detroit and its southwest suburbs are 50 percent more likely to suffer from asthma than children who live in other areas of the state.

The MDEQ’s current public comment policy is woefully inadequate in addressing community concerns. Businesses and the MDEQ must take steps to ensure that those whose well-being is most impacted by decisions that affect air quality have a voice in protecting the health of their communities. This must include a transparent and honest process with all information regarding proposed changes in emissions regulations made easily understandable and readily available.

The health and safety of our communities must be the top priority of the MDEQ. Access to clean air is not a privilege, it is a human right.

Hassan Jaber, CEO, ACCESS