This is an article from the Spring 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.

Several times during her summer internship in Detroit, Amy Mar, a biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience student, boarded the “toxic tour” bus. Her internship advisor led passengers such as LSA professors,high school students, and community residents through Detroit neighborhoods,pointing out urban industrial sites including the wastewater treatment plant, steel factory, power plant, and petroleum refinery. Mar saw a factory fence abutting one resident’s property line and petroleum coke (a dusty byproduct of oil extraction from tar sands) piling onto people’s porches. The toxic hazards were closer to Detroit residents than she’d imagined — literally in their back yards. Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), Mar spent two months working closely with the Environmental Justice Program at the Detroit branch of the Sierra Club. “I had never considered environmental justice before,” she says. “My idea of it was nothing like what it turned out to be.”

Her internship focused mainly on grassroots organization and community outreach in three downriver areas of Detroit — River Rouge, Ecorse, and 48217 in Southwest Detroit, the most polluted zip code in the state.

One major outreach project, the White Cross Campaign, raises awareness about unusually high cancer rates in these communities and the link between environmental pollution and public health. White crosses are distributed to residents, who place one in their yard if a family member has been diagnosed with cancer. The extent of the disease is visible as the crosses line some city blocks; the scene facilitates conversation and illustrates the shared experience of many in the community.