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The Fight for Cleaner Air in the Bronx

By Cecelia Paladino
In a place like the Bronx, residents can experience poor health outcomes, like asthma, just from breathing the air.

Dr. Valery Chu knows too well how an asthma attack plays out. “When asthma triggers and goes out of control, you cannot breathe. If your materials don’t work, you have to go to the emergency room,” she said. As a pharmacist at the St. Barnabas Hospital Pulmonary Center, Dr. Chu has heard about the panic people feel when an attack sets in. This is a sensation that is terribly familiar to many residents of New York City’s northernmost borough: the Bronx.

Many are unaware of the social implications of environmental deterioration. In a place like the Bronx, residents can experience poor health outcomes, like asthma, just from breathing the air. Another prominent example is Flint, Michigan’s water crisis that began in 2014 and left thousands of residents, mostly people of color, with lead poisoning.

Environmental injustice is a problem that many of us who grew up in the suburbs and filtered into perfectly-landscaped colleges have likely never had to think about. The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO'S 2017 PLAN TO RENOVATE THE SHERIDAN EXPRESSWAY OF THE SOUTH BRONX

Fair treatment is not the reality in some communities that are disproportionately burdened with environmental hazards, such as sources of pollution and contamination. Prominent examples of environmental injustice can be seen right here in the Bronx. According to the United States Census Bureau, the Bronx has the lowest average income and the most pollution of any of New York City’s boroughs.

The Bronx also has an excessive amount of manufacturing sites, including the Hunts Point Cooperative Market and the new FreshDirect headquarters. The South Bronx alone is home to 6.5 percent of the city’s population and one third of the city’s waste treatment plants. In addition, there are 10 highways that run through the Bronx, compared to only two that run along the outskirts of Manhattan.

According to New York City community health profiles, air pollution is higher in the Bronx than anywhere else in the city at 9.1 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter, compared to the city’s average of 8.6. In areas with particularly concentrated manufacturing, such as Hunts Point and Longwood, this number spikes as high as 9.8. This pollution causes asthma and other respiratory illnesses, leading to health complications and premature deaths for people in the Bronx.

Dr. Chu sees the connection between environmental conditions and public health in her work. “Asthma rates are always going to be higher when you are near an air pollution source, and there are a lot of those in the Bronx,” she said, citing waste treatment plants, major highways and housing complex emissions as major sources. “When you look at all of this information broadly, the Bronx has an asthma rate higher than most of the city, and the amount of people in the Bronx that are hospitalized or even die from asthma is higher than most of the country.”

To make the problem worse, Bronx citizens often lack the health literacy to fully grasp the severity of asthma. This leads to a “revolving door” in which patients who lack proactive treatment keep returning to the emergency room when they are unable to breathe.

“Our biggest frustration is that we can’t help these people if they don’t come in when they feel well,” Dr. Chu said. “These pollutants exist in places where people have tremendous poverty. This creates terrible health literacy, which leads to a vicious cycle. They are more likely to die from this disease.”

 

Working Towards Solutions

The complexity of this issue can leave Bronx residents feeling helpless. But there are several organizations that are working to improve air quality in the Bronx. One is Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit that aims to address economic and environmental problems in the South Bronx, where air quality is especially bad. Their mission is to “promote environmental justice in a neighborhood that has borne, and continues to bear, a heavy environmental burden for the rest of the city.”

The organization’s chief venture officer, Toby Sheppard Bloch, works to inform community members about the environmental hazards affecting them. “Almost everyone in our program knows someone or has had someone in their family who has suffered an asthma attack and ended up in the hospital,” Sheppard Bloch said. “They’re left unable to go to work, school, or even dead.”

Asthma attacks are triggered by pollutants, but they can also be exacerbated by extreme heat waves, which have been increasing in frequency in New York City in recent years. “[These heat waves] are not just a product of typical weather patterns, but a symptom of global warming,” he said. So while emissions from trucks and industrial sites directly cause poor air quality, they also contribute to global climate change, which in turn leads to more heat waves.

ART BY ALINA KWIATKOWSKI

Sustainable South Bronx has put several initiatives into motion that combat poor air quality and the negative impacts of heat waves. One example is NYC Cool Roofs, which offers free reflective roof coating on affordable housing complexes. This roof coating can lower the energy consumption of a building by reducing its cooling load in the summer while lowering the temperature of the area around it.

Not only does this program address environmental concerns, but it also employs people who often struggle to find good jobs, including community members with a history of incarceration, substance abuse or homelessness. “They’re now getting a job, certifications and training to get involved in the green development field,” Sheppard Bloch said. Green jobs like these offer promise to mitigate pollution and the increasing effects of climate change in the city while providing good livelihoods.

The New York state and city governments have also put several initiatives in motion that attempt to alleviate air pollution in the Bronx. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2017 plan to renovate the Sheridan Expressway of the South Bronx and reduce traffic recently received federal approval. The Sheridan Expressway will be rehabilitated as a pedestrian-friendly boulevard with a walkable bridge and a bike path. This project will provide more accessible space for residents and mitigate the industrial traffic and resulting pollution in the South Bronx.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has also proposed ideas to improve the environmental health of the Bronx, including his “OneNYC” plan. On top of the city’s commitment to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050, OneNYC also acknowledges the prevalence of environmental hazards in low-income communities and the health problems that result.

The plan commits to improve air quality in “vulnerable communities” by diverting trucks from traffic-heavy areas and moving more goods via rail and water transport. The plan also proposes to source more clean energy at Hunts Point Cooperative Market, which uses enough energy per year to power almost 9,000 homes.

While these actions offer some promise, there is still much more work to be done to uproot environmental justice issues in the Bronx. Sheppard Bloch of Sustainable South Bronx says that the fight for clean air requires community engagement and institutional change. But he also emphasizes the need to take personal action. “Environmental literacy, environmental activism and pressuring elected officials to regulate these things is really the most important thing that individuals can do,” he said.