Staten Island Advance: Island air not so bad after all

(December 16, 2009)

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

By PETER N. SPENCER

Staten Island Advance

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Breathe deeply, Staten Islanders: Your borough has the least polluted air in the city -- at least, during the cold months.

The city's first Community Air Survey, conducted from December 2008 through March 2009, found the highest levels of pollution in neighborhoods with high concentrations of traffic, commercial buildings and residential high-rises.

No area in the city met all of the clean air standards, however, and the survey did not include ozone levels, which are much higher during the summer.

"We have to be careful. No air in New York City is clean or pristine, but some pollutants, especially in the winter, are lower in the less densely populated places," said Michael Seilback, vice president of public policy and communications for the American Lung Association (ALA).

The Island has received failing marks for 10 years in a row in the ALA's annual State of the Air report, which compares ozone and particle pollution over a longer period of time, but in fewer locations than the ongoing city study. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration is collecting air samples at 150 locations throughout the city, using pole or streetlight-mounted air monitors that collect samples for about two weeks.

The survey found a drastic difference between residential areas such as the Island, and areas with larger buildings, such as Manhattan and parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn. Those larger buildings burn "residual oil" for heat, which produces a high amount of fine particles, elemental carbon, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide -- elements that increase risks of asthma, cancer and lung disease. Traffic corridors also present higher risks of pollutants, the study found.

St. George, with its numerous commercial and government buildings, and corridors around the Staten Island and West Shore expressways were the highest-pollution areas on the Island.

"Virtually in every borough, there are people exposed to a higher level of fuel-combustion related pollutants," said Dr. Thomas Matte, director of environmental research at the city's Department of Health and lead investigator for the survey.

The report marks the first time the city has studied air pollution levels at ground level, on neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. The city will also publish results of studies during the spring, summer and fall.

The data could be used to seek new legislation to prevent pollution in the future, such as prohibitions on the type of oil that can be burned in city buildings.

"This study clearly demonstrates the impacts that pollution from vehicles and certain oil-burning boilers has on our neighborhoods -- and it shows us that the most densely populated areas are also the most polluted," Bloomberg said, in a released statement from Copenhagen, Denmark, where he is attending a climate change conference.