Coming Together to Breathe Free

An interview with the Ecology Center on efforts to protect our planet

By Laura DiMasi
March 5, 2024

In 1970, on the first-ever Earth Day, a nonprofit organization called the Ecology Center was formed to “[protect] healthy people and a healthy planet.” More than 50 years later, it is still fighting for these priorities.

Through action in the Detroit community and nationwide, the organization pushes corporations to use clean energy and make safe products, works with policymakers to establish laws protecting communities and the environment, and builds campaigns focused on environmental justice.

To learn more about the Ecology Center's work in climate action, CHEST spoke with Kathryn Savoie, PhD, the organization’s Director of Equity and Environmental Justice.

Kathryn Savoie, PhD

Kathryn Savoie, PhD
Director of Equity and Environmental Justice, Ecology Center

CHEST: Tell us a bit about your role with the Ecology Center.

Kathryn Savoie: My work at the Ecology Center is focused on air pollution and environmental justice. We work with environmental justice leaders and grassroots organizations in Detroit to fight for clean air; support neighbors who are organizing against polluting facilities; use community-based air monitoring; and work for policies that protect public health, improve air quality, and support environmental justice.

A room full of people working at tables assembling fans and filters

At a community-based workshop on air quality, Detroit residents learn how to build a do-it-yourself air filter using a furnace filter and box fan.

I personally live in southwest Detroit in a highly industrialized area, so I experience the harms from air pollution. I'm also the parent of a (now adult) child with asthma, so the topic of air pollution and the right of everyone to breathe healthy air is very close to my heart, both personally and professionally.

Tell us about the Breathe Free Detroit campaign. How did it start, and what was the outcome?

The Breathe Free Detroit campaign was founded by the Ecology Center and several other organizations in 2017 to shut down a Detroit municipal solid waste incinerator that was burning tons of trash (most of it coming from other communities) without investing sufficiently in the equipment to protect the community from harmful emissions. For years, [the incinerator was] constantly violating air quality laws and regulations , but not enough was being done about it.

Through a strong grassroots campaign that engaged thousands of Detroiters, I’m proud to share that the campaign eventually led to the incinerator’s closing in 2019.

People gathering outside with protest signs

At a press conference outside Detroit City Hall, Breathe Free Detroit protesters call on Mayor Duggan to shut down the incinerator.

Following this success, after the incinerator closed, with the community’s support, the Ecology Center built out a network of community-based air monitors that are still in operation across the city to this day, raising awareness about air quality.

“The topic of air pollution and the right of everyone to breathe healthy air is very close to my heart, both personally and professionally.”

CHEST has members worldwide, some of whom are in your area. How can clinicians support your mission?

Clinicians, regardless of their location, have such an important role to play in supporting our mission for healthy people and a healthy planet. The first step is just to understand that your patients may be affected by air pollution and other environmental hazards.

In southwest Detroit, asthma rates and other pulmonary impacts from industry and transportation-related air pollution are incredibly high. But when my daughter had asthma as a child, I was repeatedly asked, “Are you sure nobody in your household smokes?” We were never asked about the unhealthy pollution levels from a plethora of industrial sources and the transportation-related air pollution in my neighborhood.

People in a room watching a presentation

Research Director, Jeff Gearhart, and Savoie lead a community workshop on air quality and air monitoring with residents in northwest Detroit.

There are so many tangible ways in which you, as a clinician, can be an advocate:

  • With your patients, inquire about environmental exposures.
  • Within your peer groups and professional associations, let them know what you are experiencing in the office or in your community.
  • Advocate for changes to local, state, and federal regulations, practices, and policies that affect air pollution by speaking with elected officials, writing an op-ed for the newspaper, or working with affected communities to give testimony about policies that permit polluting facilities or other environmental decisions that affect air quality and health.

Also, if you aren’t aware, you can learn about the role that structural racism plays in a community and how it contributes to health inequities that exist, whether that’s in exposure to air pollution, COVID-19, or other inequities.

“When my daughter had asthma as a child, I was repeatedly asked, ‘Are you sure nobody in your household smokes?’ We were never asked about the unhealthy pollution levels in my neighborhood.”

With air pollution, studies have shown that residents of historically redlined neighborhoods are more likely to experience a range of environmental and health disparities, including present-day disparities in exposure to air pollution.

If the role of an advocate is one that you are either not comfortable with or not trained for, feel free to reach out to the Ecology Center. We can help you advocate for clean air!

An estimated 9 million deaths per year from air pollution (and more than 700 deaths per year in Detroit) are preventable deaths. We can make decisions and change policies to reduce air pollution, and thereby reduce deaths and disease from air pollution.

Health professionals are seen as credible, trusted experts by the public, and their voices—especially those local to Michigan—can help us make a real difference in the quality of the air we breathe.