Clearing the Air
By José E. Serrano
September 20, 2004
With all of our focus on the war in Iraq, the upcoming elections, and
the administration's ever-vacillating orange and yellow terror alerts, we New Yorkers may not be putting a mundane topic such as pollution very high on our list of worries. But while the problem may not grab our attention like a war, persistent environmental hazards in places like the Bronx are taking the lives of our children just the same.
Policymakers have the power to address these problems, but often seem to lack the will to. In Congress, we need to maintain tough
standards and fund research to find technological solutions to
environmental problems, while also tackling systemic issues such as access to health care.
HEALTH PROBLEMS IN THE SOUTH BRONX
The numbers are disturbing: New Yorkers suffer from the worst rates of
asthma in the country, with over 10 percent of schoolchildren and more
than 6 percent of the total population affected by the chronic
respiratory disease. New York, along with Chicago, leads the nation in
asthma deaths. Conditions are especially bad in the South Bronx, where
20 to 25 percent of schoolchildren suffer from asthma. Children in the
area are hospitalized for asthma at a rate 250 percent higher than the
rate for children in the rest of New York City, and 1000 percent higher
than the rate for children in New York State as a whole.
South Bronx residents also cope with abnormally high rates of other
respiratory illnesses, infant mortality, and immune deficiency
disorders, while living in unhealthy conditions and having poorer access
Several local factors contribute to the pollution behind the respiratory
illness epidemic. The South Bronx, besides being surrounded by highly
trafficked highways, is home to a disproportionate share of the city's
waste transfer stations. It is also a center of industrial activity. As
a result, diesel trucks are omnipresent, creating dangerous levels of
air pollution. The pollution from these trucks has been specifically
linked to severe asthma attacks.
In low-income communities, health problems can quickly turn into social
ones: Asthma, for example, is the number one cause of student
absenteeism in New York City schools.
FUNDING RESEARCH AND GREEN SPACE
Since 1998, New York University, with cooperation from the local
community, has conducted the South Bronx Environmental Health and Policy Study. The study,
which I secured funding for, analyzes the environmental and public
health effects associated with living near pollution sources, including
waste transfer stations and major expressways.
So far, the study has observed the following:
• Hourly concentrations of diesel exhaust are higher at all of the
South Bronx sites that have been tested than at the sites tested in
• Street level air sampling, using the study's mobile van laboratory,
reveals that the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and
carbon monoxide are substantially higher than samples taken from rooftop
monitoring sites. Air pollution is often more severe closer to the
ground, and so it is important that it be studied where people actually
are (on the ground), rather than just on rooftops, where it has
traditionally been measured.
• Levels of most pollutants in the South Bronx are below U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency standards, with the exceptions of ozone
and particulate matter.
• There is a strong association between zip codes with high asthma rates and those with a high number of industrial facilities, such as the waste transfer stations that are found all across the South Bronx.
The study is still underway. Its findings will help local policymakers
better understand the relationship between air pollution and public
health in the South Bronx. A
series of papers written during the study are available at http://www.house.gov/serrano. Future research will examine demographic variables such as property values, poverty, and median household income to see what kinds of people are more likely to live close to dangerous waste transfer stations.
Students have already helped to disseminate the findings of the air pollution
study to community leaders and residents and will continue to do so. These young people are
participants in a program for high-school students from the South Bronx
that gives them a chance to work with scientists and policy experts in
public health and environmental science and to explore career
opportunities in these areas.
The findings of the South Bronx Environmental Health and Policy Study underscores how poor people bear a disproportionate share of the burden of our city's air-borne disease. Much needs to be done to address this injustice.
The first step is to enforce the clean air regulations that we already have in place. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has been working to systematically relax the tough standards of the Clean Air Act. While Democrats and some moderate Republicans have tried to challenge the administration in Congress, the Republican leadership of the House and Senate has refused to allow for the tough oversight that our citizens so desperately want and need.
GREENER PLACES, CLEANER TECHNOLOGY
In the most urban of American cities, our children must have access to
open spaces where they can play and enjoy nature. But while parks make
children's lives healthier and more fun, we should also pursue
technological solutions to environmental challenges. Through policy
initiatives, government can encourage the private sector to explore
these possibilities. Using alternative, cleaner-burning fuels can go a
long way in reducing the air pollution that afflicts our communities.
Alternative fuel technology development can also help to create jobs as
innovative, more environmentally friendly companies provide economic
growth and cleaner products. One of the great myths of our day holds
that environmental protection and economic growth are incongruous. The
Center for Sustainable Energy at Bronx Community College, which I helped
fund, works to dispel that myth, showing the connection between growth
and protection through education, training, and community engagement.
Congress needs to do more to combat the devastating effects of air
pollution on the health of Americans. To that end, I have sponsored
legislation to provide tax credits to businesses that use clean-fuel
vehicles in high pollution areas. I
have also co-sponsored the "Clean Smokestacks Act of 2003" that would
amend the Clean Air Act to require the reduction of emissions from
electric power plants. Unfortunately, the Republican Congressional leadership has not allowed
these bills to advance through the House.
BETTER ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE
These are the sorts of measures we need to help reduce the
environmental problems in places like the South Bronx. But from Boise to
Brooklyn, asthma and other respiratory diseases would not be so damaging
if we had universal health care in our country. Disadvantaged Americans
are paying for our nation's disparities with their health and their
lives. If asthmatics received proper preventative health care, they
would be able to better manage their asthma and get access to the
medication they so desperately need. Government needs to do more to
expand access to health care and to encourage people to use the services
As it stands now, many of our kids only get their asthma treated when
it becomes so bad that they have to go to the emergency room. Studies
have consistently shown that the amount we pay for emergency room visits
costs more than it would to provide better preventive care. For these
reasons, as well as in the interests of basic social justice, we must
continue to fight to build an America that is not the only
industrialized nation in the world without universal health coverage.
The challenges ahead of us are myriad and daunting. But if we truly
believe in an America of equal opportunity, we must work to reduce the
glaring environmental and health disparities that continue to afflict
our needy communities.
José E. Serrano, a Democrat, represents the 16th Congressional District.
He serves on the House Appropriations Committee and is a member of the
Children's Environmental Health Caucus.
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