Toxic Town: Michigan's Most Polluted Zip Code

Last Updated by Will Glover on

48217: Michigan’s Most Toxic Zip Code

Bill Kubota, One Detroit/Detroit Public Television


  Usually, with a new playground, library or community center comes a dedication ceremony with speeches by local leaders. It might even make front page news.

  But an air monitoring station? Yes, an air monitoring station installed in a part of Southwest Detroit is cause for celebration.

  In Boynton, a predominately African American neighborhood, now better known for its zip code, 48217, has been deemed the most toxic place in Michigan.  

  Professor Paul Mohai of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment looked at data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory and charted the most polluted areas on a map. 

  Mohai points it out on his computer screen, “You can definitely see ground zero so to speak and where that hotspot is.” In the middle of the eight most polluted zip codes in the Detroit area sits 48217. 

  The air monitor installed by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality could help better understand just what, and how many different pollutants the people living there are breathing.

  Combine some steel mills, an oil refinery, a wastewater treatment facility, a coal burning power plant operating for decades and a constant parade of trucks, the residents of 48217 believe they have very serious cause for concern.

   Getting the air monitor in place was a struggle. It came only after an effort led by three women, environmental activists who took it upon themselves to study the law, learn the science and navigate the politics to try to make their neighborhood a better place to live.

   “We have a toxic soup down here,” says Theresa Landrum, one of the activists, who’s lived in the area all her life. “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?”

   It should be noted that company operating the oil refinery says it causes only three percent of the air emissions problems in 48217. Meanwhile, the coal burning power plant is slated to close by 2023 as part of that company’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint and says it has continued reduce toxic emissions in recent years.

Ttown activist news paper.pngThe front page of The Telegram, serving Detroit and The Downriver Community, October 2016Bill Kubota


southWest Det toxic.pngI-75 near the Marathon Oil Refinery complex in 48217 Bill Kubota


HandRaised Activist.pngActivists Theresa Landrum, Dr. Delores Leonard and Rhonda Anderson (hand raised) at a public hearing held by the Michigan Department of EnviBill Kubota


toxictown map.png48217, as depicted by MDEQ. White numbers on black dots show major emissions sources.Bill Kubota


One Detroit - Four million people. One story.

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