Air Wars

Activists Struggle to Link Proposed Power Plants to Asthma

In the heart of the nation's poorest congressional district—number 16 in the Bronx—Yolanda Garcia is doing her part. Garcia has been counting trucks on local corners, hoping to document what she feels is an increase in traffic. She wants to connect diesel exhaust with increasing asthma rates, but constantly struggles for funding and the proper equipment. "It took us two years just to get two new monitors in the area," says Garcia, who has had to rely on volunteer counters for the project. "At this rate, it will take another five years before we can actually see the differences in the pollution count."

But if the smoking gun of asthma is elusive in poor neighborhoods, the smoking incinerators, waste processors, and power generators are not. The connection between poverty and sources of contamination is clear: Dangerous industrial projects tend to end up where people lack the political clout to fight them. Even the State Power Authority, in its own report recently leaked to The New York Times, acknowledged that the proposed generators are planned in poor areas with high numbers of black and Hispanic residents.

Poverty, it turns out, may also be the most consistent link with asthma, connecting the dots of ventilation problems, air pollution, and lack of good health care that exacerbate it. Children in the city's low-income areas are more than four times as likely to be hospitalized for asthma than children in high-income areas, according to the city Department of Health; more than 60 percent of the recent surge of cases was in low-income communities.

The economically skewed numbers can't yet tell us why being poor can make it more difficult to breathe. All we know for now is that it can, and that the power plants that could aggravate this mysterious condition may soon be located near the people who would suffer from them most.

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