City Limits: Asthma in New York: Old News, New Battles

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Fights over congestion pricing and the city's sanitation strategy have receded from the headlines. But in North Brooklyn, worry is still in the air.

By Rachel Stern

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bushwick and Williamsburg have a higher combined rate of asthma in children and adults than the Bronx or Harlem—the media poster children of New York City's asthma.

Bushwick — Every time asthma educator James Mantle gives a prevention presentation at P.S. 287 in Fort Greene, he sees the pollutants that spark attacks right outside his window. The Manhattan Expressway is just "a stone's throw" from the school, he says, and one of the environmental factors leading North Brooklyn to be "a hotbed of asthma."

In 2006, New York City adopted a plan to create more rail- and water- based waste transfer stations and reduce reliance on garbage trucks that tended to rumble through neighborhoods—many concentrated in North Brooklyn—where exhaust fumes contribute to high levels of asthma. In 2008, the Bloomberg administration tried to set up tolls for cars entering Manhattan—a bid to reduce traffic and air pollution.

The mayor's congestion pricing plan was passed by City Council, but never put to an Assembly vote—a well-known failure. But the Solid Waste Management Plan or SWMP,  hailed as a success when passed by the Council, has also failed to fully deliver, say environmental and anti-asthma advocates in North Brooklyn.

According to the New York City Department of Sanitation, a third of the city's trash has shifted from trucks to rails since the 2006 SWMP. But one of the new water-based stations planned for the Upper East Side remains blocked by a lawsuit. And the SWMP failed to lay out the groundwork for reducing capacity at the current, truck-based transfer stations—many which are located in Williamsburg and Greenpoint— says Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and former director of city legislative affairs at the Office of the Mayor.

"We didn't fight all these years to expand waste transfer in the community, and not have the truck-based sector shut down," says Bautista.

According to the 2006 plan, seven marine- and rail- based transfer stations are to be built to provide relief for high sanitation plant-saturated areas, such as Brooklyn and the Bronx. While four of the proposed transfer stations should have been finished by 2010, only one is complete. It's on Varick Avenue in Bushwick.

According to the most recent 2007 Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Community Health profile, Bushwick and Williamsburg have a higher combined rate of asthma in children and adults than the Bronx or Harlem—the media poster children of New York City's asthma. Both Bushwick and Williamsburg have an adult asthma rate of 9 percent, and Northwest Brooklyn's stands at 8 percent, both higher than the New York City and Brooklyn average of 5 percent. The reported rate is 8 percent for East Harlem, 7 percent for Central Harlem and 8 percent for the South Bronx.
                     
"We make sure patients take their medication, but they keep coming back to the ER because of [environmental factors triggering attacks]," says Desire LaTempa, the Coordinator for the North Brooklyn Asthma Action Alliance, based out of Woodhull Hospital in Greenpoint, where her office features a poster showing different types of inhalers.

Asthma hospitalization rates in North Brooklyn have been going down in the past few years, particularly for children 14 and under. There were 949 asthma hospitalizations in this group in Bushwick in 2006-2007, down from 1,147 in 2001-2002, according to New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data. Yet, "while these rates have declined, Bushwick still has hospitalization rates for asthma that are higher than the overall Brooklyn and New York City rates," says Mantle, who coordinates the Brenda Pillars Asthma Education Program at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

Indeed, these asthma hot zones stand out in Brooklyn, which ranks low among the boroughs air pollutants by the American Lung Association. In their just released "State of the Air" report based on E.P.A. data, Brooklyn received a "C" grade for short term particle pollution. Every other borough—except Staten Island with a C—received an F.

Scientists believe hereditary factors and indoor elements, like the presence of cockroaches, contribute to the development of asthma. Yet environmental pollutants spurred by vehicle exhaust and factories—such as ozone, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxides—also play a big role in triggering attacks.

"The human body isn't supposed to be exposed to these levels of pollution," says Michael Seiback, the Vice President for Public Policy and Communication at the New York American Lung Association.

Fifty percent of Manhattan's waste is brought into Brooklyn every day on about 5,000 diesel trucks to 22 transfer stations, says Woodhull Hospital doctor Edward Fishkin, exposing those neighborhoods to the asthma risks that that kind of traffic entails. Also adding to the factors, says Fishkin, is the fact that North Brooklyn neighborhoods are poorly zoned, placing residential neighborhoods next to factories.

"Specifically in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, trucks bring in raw materials and finished goods where people are living," says Fishkin. "There are no [entirely] industrial parks, which is different than other parts of the city."

Biologist Victor Rosario, 63, has lived in Bushwick since the early 1970s. His two sons suffered from asthma when they were children, and his wife died from an asthma attack while walking up a flight of stairs fifteen years ago.

"Taking asthma medicine is not going to help," says Rosario, pointing out that environmental conditions will continue triggering attacks. He listed intense construction and smoke stacks that dot the area, as well his personal encounters with roaches and vermin in his apartment.

There is some progress. Reema Loutan, an Environmental Engineer and member of the Mobile Source Team at the Environmental Protection Agency, said two transportation companies in Brooklyn, 58th Wild Card Transportation and James Haley Trucking Corp., had joined the EPA's SmartWay program, committing to reducing emissions through methods such as aerodynamic installations on trailers and automatic tire inflation.

But legislative and regulatory changes have so far failed to fully address the problem.

Congestion pricing, a controversial proposal that would have directed toll revenue to the transit system, died in 2008 when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—citing the sentiment of his Democratic majority—refused to let the measure come to a vote.

In May 2008, an Asthma-Free Housing Act was introduced to New York City Council with backing from advocacy groups including the Bushwick-based Make the Road. It would mandate that New York City landlords carefully inspect the apartments they lease for cockroaches and mold, and efficiently respond to renters' needs. However, it died when the Council's 2005-2008 term ended.

Lawsuits, meanwhile, have blocked the creation of new transfer stations that the SWMP prescribed for affluent Manhattan neighborhoods, such as the West Village and Upper East Side, and intended to reduce trash-handling in low-income areas. At the latter site, the Gracie Point Community Council iled a second lawsuit last August, one which is now in the state Supreme Court, against the city to stop the construction of a marine transfer station at 91st street. The first one, filed in October 2005 by Gracie Point Community Council and thirteen other petitioners, was shot down by the New York Supreme Court.

Anthony Ard, chair of the Gracie Point Community Council, says his group's aim is both to keep a stream of garbage trucks out of the already polluted Upper East Side, and advocate for more sustainable methods of trash disposal—ideally more rail-based systems, and waste-to-energy stations.

"Our objective is to force the city to adopt a truly modern approach, instead of existing methods used in the early to mid-twentieth century," he said. "[The station] would wreak enormous environmental damage in the neighborhood."