From the August 2017 issue

Michigan Environmental Issues That Affect Most Families

Keeping Michigan healthy has benefits for us all. Discover some of the biggest environmental problems affecting our families – and how you and your kids can be the change.

It’s easy to find reminders of our state’s abundant resources – from the rolling waves of Lakes Michigan and Huron up north to the majestic oak and hickory trees towering over our local, county and state parks closer to metro Detroit.

Home to the largest freshwater system in the world, 19.3 million acres of forests and 49,000 miles of rivers, the Mitten gives us more than our fair share of natural treasures to behold.

But while vast, these resources are far from infinite. Our air, water, land and wildlife need protection – and that’s important to recognize while raising a family with a sense of ecological responsibility. After all, this land is our land for now but our children’s and grandchildren’s soon.

The challenge can feel as vast as the Great Lakes. What are some of the biggest threats, and how can we help our kids make a difference?

For some answers, Metro Parent checked in with specialists at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and local grassroots and nonprofit efforts. Here are their insights on what we’re up against and how we can make things better for our households and the environment.

1. Protecting our waterways

Whether it’s the five Great Lakes or 35,000 inland lakes and ponds, our freshwater faces various intruders. Invasive species like Asian carp, which experts are trying to keep out of the Great Lakes, threaten to push out native species and wreak havoc on the existing ecosystem.

Michigan officials are actively working to manage that risk and others, such as pollution from sources like stormwater runoff. When rain flows into our waterways, it often brings with it debris, chemicals, animal waste and other pollutants picked up along the way. Meanwhile, funding cuts are a persistent risk.

“A thriving Great Lakes system is vitally important to Michigan’s environment, economy and public health,” says Rachel Coale, outreach coordinator for the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes. “The Great Lakes are a shared resource, and it’s important for all of us to be good water stewards to ensure that future generations have the same or better quality of life than we have today.”

Other pollution sources range from improper lawn fertilizer use – excess nutrients spill into drains and breed excess aquatic plant and algae growth in lakes, notes the Michigan State University Extension online – to aging septic systems which, while less common than sewer lines in our region, have been linked to E. coli in rivers.

What you can do

Talk to kids about being good freshwater stewards. The Friends of the St. Clair River Watershed, which is near Macomb County and offers community education, urges families not to feed animals near water or beaches and to never put anything down storm drains (“only rain in the drain!”).

Think of hard surfaces too. If you wash the car on the driveway or leave dog droppings on the sidewalk, that soap and bacteria winds up in drains, too, notes MSU Extension. Commercial car washes and poo bags can help.

So can planting native flowers, shrubs, trees and ferns. They “thrive on rainwater and generally don’t need fertilizing,” the Ann Arbor-area Huron River Watershed Council website adds.

2. Air pollution and energy

When it comes to our blue skies above, the greatest issue is manmade energy. In fact, almost two-thirds of air pollution is a result of generating electricity, explains James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing.

The health impact is stark. In Michigan, 11.5 percent of adults and 9.2 percent of kids have asthma, the MI Air MI Health coalition reports – about 25 percent above the national average. It’s been linked to heart disease, lung cancer and diabetes too.

But our state is making progress, Clift says.

“Air pollution coming from power plants is significantly down in Michigan,” he says. “We’ve seen that number just in the past eight years drop by about a third.”

That’s due to the closing of coal-fired power plants, an increase in natural gas use and more renewable energy sources, Clift says – “people using less energy and becoming more efficient,” he notes. “Over the next eight years we might see another third of that (pollution) disappear.”

All state electric providers achieved a 10 percent renewable energy standard in 2015, says Nick Assendelft, spokesperson for the Michigan Agency for Energy in Lansing. They’ll be required to meet 12.5 percent in 2019 and 15 percent by 2021.

“The cost of wind and solar energy is continuing to decrease,” he notes. “Families need to be aware of the evolution of power-generation and be confident that when they turn on the TV or flip a light switch that their power needs will be met.”

What you can do

Start with reducing your energy waste by upgrading to LED lights, Assendelft says, using programmable thermostats and running appliances like dishwashers at off-peak utility hours – typically mid-night to early morning (especially if yours can be programmed).

Turn off game consoles, printers, computers and cable boxes when they’re not being used, as well. “Teaching children how to reduce energy waste can lead to lifelong money-saving habits,” he adds. “On a larger scale, families can see if their budget will allow for installation of solar panels or wind turbines at home to generate some of their own electricity.”

3. Dealing with waste

Despite being one of the first states with a bottle deposit law and some of the first food-waste collection programs, Michigan still lags when it comes to recycling. Our rate is near 15 percent, compared to the national average of about 35 percent.

“We have a lot of really strong programs, especially in southeast Michigan, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “Unfortunately, the amount that is being landfilled every year continues to increase. And it doesn’t have to be that way.”

States with higher rates have more material making its way into new products, he says. And Michigan businesses need those materials.

“All of the benefits of using recycled material really come into the energy savings – the water savings and the material savings that are realized because an individual chooses to place a material into their recycling bin,” Flechter says. “It really is one of the easiest and most important individual actions that somebody can take to protect the environment.”

What you can do

Lots. To start, work to reduce the amount of material you go through and reuse as much as you can. Next, up your recycling game: Are all recyclables going in the bin? Then work on food waste.

“A third of all food is wasted in this country,” Flechter points out. “Make sure that it doesn’t make its way to a landfill but into a composting pile instead … where that waste is turned into food for your garden versus a one-way trip to a hole in the ground.”

Another tip is to dump your trash bag outside one day and take a close look at it as a family – and discuss. “What are some different ways we can reuse that material or not have it in the first place?” Flechter suggests.

His family, for example, made fabric gift bags about 10 years ago and has been avoiding holiday wrapping paper waste ever since.

On the broader scale, consider getting involved in the push for more recycling programs. “They can talk to their elected officials and talk to their waste company and let them know that they want more options,” he says.

In Michigan, 11.5 percent of adults and 9.2 percent of kids have asthma, the mi air MI Health Coalition reports – about 25 percent above the national average.

4. Clean drinking water

The Flint water crisis put a spotlight on the risk of contaminated drinking water, heightening awareness in response to the local tragedy that exposed nearly 100,000 Michigan residents to lead poisoning and outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease.

“Flint really highlighted for us some of the concerns there,” says Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council, which is working on a new resource to help residents evaluate the safety of their drinking water.

Other areas throughout the state also have water contamination concerns, Clift says – from lead pipes and contaminated groundwater to problematic levels of naturally occurring arsenic and chloride in groundwater.

“A lot of older fixtures in homes have lead in them,” he adds. “Depending on when the plumbing went into your home, that could also be a source.” And in other places still, “legacy industrial contamination has become a problem.”

What you can do

Each year, residents should receive a Consumer Confidence Report from their water provider. If you need help finding yours or understanding it, contact the Michigan Environmental Council or watch for its occasional Drinking Water Town Hall meetings – next up locally is Aug. 2 in Lathrup Village.

Happen to have your own well? The CDC recommends having it tested once per year for contaminants.

5. Preserving our pollinators

Honeybees and other pollinators are a critical part of the ecosystem – around a third of America’s crops rely on bees to some extent – but their population has been on a steady decline. According to Environment Michigan, beekeepers are reporting average losses of 30 percent of all honeybees each winter.

Grassroots groups like Bee Safe Ann Arbor are doing their part to help by establishing Bee Safe Neighborhoods, where pollinators can thrive without chemicals like pesticides and herbicides. That benefits families, too.

“Things that can kill pollinators can also harm people,” says Rita Mitchell, a Bee Safe coordinator. Runoff from pesticides can also contaminate water and drift from sprays in the air and can trigger asthma attacks, she says.

While the honeybee shortage gets more press, our state’s butterflies, bumblebees and, countrywide, 4,000 other wild bee species are also at risk.

“We don’t watch over the bumblebees and mason bees and other bees the way we do with honeybees,” Mitchell says. “But it’s equally important. Those other native pollinators do a tremendous amount of pollination that helps our food system and that helps our general environment.”

What you can do

Practice responsible gardening in your yard by not buying plants that have been pre-treated with neonicotinoids, a type of systemic agricultural insecticide that can be particularly harmful.

“A lot of the big box-type stores have sold a lot of those kind of plants,” Mitchell says.

And don’t spray your garden just because you see a few chewed-up plants. Caterpillars, for example, are a good thing.

“Not every hole in a leaf is a sign of an infestation that needs to be sprayed,” she says. “If you like birds, you really need to like bugs.”

And when it comes to bees? Let them be. “Bees of all types, they are not interested in people. They want to get their pollen and get it back to wherever their home is,” she says.

Overall, “it’s all a big combination of things,” Mitchell says. “It’s all so connected. We need to preserve as much habitat as we can and support all kinds of pollinators. Treat nature gently and try and do no harm.”

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