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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.


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 to healthcare.

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.


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 Manhattan.

• 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 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.


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.


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 already available.

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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