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Community groups eye air purifiers in polluted Detroit neighborhood

If ever there were a neighborhood where an air purifier belongs in every home, it might be Oakwood Heights in Southwest Detroit. Granted, Detroit is not the dirtiest-air city in the United States. In fact, it only ranks 17th in year-round particle pollution on the American Lung Association’s Most Polluted Cities list. But the 42817 ZIP code, including Oakwood Heights, is surrounded by a petroleum refinery, an automobile factory, salt mines under the streets, a coal-fired power plant, and cement and asphalt manufacturers. It’s easy to see why the Community Benefits Coalition, a community advocacy group in the area, is pushing for air purifiers at schools in the area. They are hoping a new bridge over the Detroit River and into their neighborhood will bring interest and funding for school air filtration and other air quality projects in the not-too-distant future.

Local residents call Oakwood Heights the “Sacrifice Zone.” Environmental activists from the Sierra Club coined the term to reflect the community’s sacrifices that have been made while local energy-production companies have prospered. Meanwhile, a University of Michigan/Detroit Free Press study last year named the neighborhood the most polluted in Michigan. And particle pollution, which can be removed from indoor air by a high-performance air purifier, is only part of the problem. Nitrogen oxide and other gases are also present at alarming levels.

Asthma rates in the neighborhood are high. One study of elementary school students in Southwest Detroit reported that 14.3 percent of students have physician-diagnosed asthma and another 14.4 percent have undiagnosed asthma. Other studies have linked increases in particulate pollution and ozone to increases in asthma symptoms in the neighborhood. Community groups for years have been addressing the problem by going house to house and working with families to reduce asthma triggers in the home. But while air purifiers have been shown to be effective in reducing asthma symptoms, few families in neighborhoods such as Oakwood Heights can afford them at home.

A pilot study conducted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California in 2009 demonstrated that low-cost, high-efficiency HVAC filters from IQAir removed up to 90 percent of ultrafine particles and diesel particulate matter from indoor classroom air. IQAir stand-alone air purifiers for classrooms have achieved similar results. These technologies have already been installed by IQAir in more than 400 classrooms. Until similar classroom clean air technologies receive funding in Southwest Detroit, the “Sacrifice Zone” will likely continue to struggle to hold the line against asthma rates of almost 30 percent.

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