The proposed emergency power plants now generating bitter disputes throughout the city would spew tons of toxic chemicals and soot directly into the poorest of neighborhoods, as the state itself acknowledged last week. That pollution from these turbines will drive up already high asthma rates in these neighborhoods might seem obvious. but as community activists are learning, tracing symptoms to the proposed generators—or any single environmental problem—is a frustratingly difficult task.
Look at a map of the city’s wildly varying asthma hospitalization rates and you might think the Pataki administration deliberately decided to put generators where the breathing is already toughest. In the Harlem Yards and Port Morris sections of the South Bronx, where two of the city’s 10 proposed turbines would be located, more than 25 of every 1000 children are hospitalized for asthma each year, compared to just over two per year in the relatively pristine Soho. In Williamsburg, which will be home to another of these generators if the state has its way, nine of every 1000 children end up in the hospital, wheezing and gasping for breath. In Sunset Park, another designated generator site, that number is almost eight.
The connection between environmental contamination and the chronic inflamed lungs of asthma seems a no-brainer. The Bronx, which has the dubious distinction of being number one in both asthma-related hospitalizations and deaths, also bears a disproportionately large burden of waste processing plants, incinerators, bus depots, and traffic corridors—all sources of fine particles that are difficult to clear from the lungs. Several studies have shown that, throughout the country, on days when the levels of this type of air pollution are highest, more people end up in the hospital with asthma attacks. Three weeks ago, the Supreme Court gave the tiniest of these particles health-hazard status, deciding unanimously they were dangerous enough to regulate. (It’s unclear when this decision will be enforced by the Bush administration.)
But pinning elevated asthma rates on power plants or any single source of pollution can be as difficult as plucking minuscule particles from the air. No one knows what initially causes asthma, which, in some parts of the world, strikes the wealthy more often than the poor. Asthma rates across the country mysteriously jumped 75 percent between 1980 and 1994, at the same time that national air quality was improving. Meanwhile, the irritants that make it worse—mouse dander, air-borne cockroach parts, mold, and cigarette smoke as well as air pollution from power generators, diesel buses, and incinerators—tend to overlap, each leaving asthmatics more vulnerable to the other triggers.
That mix of irritants also makes it nearly impossible to isolate the role of just one hazard from the series of environmental assaults in poor neighborhoods. “It’s very difficult to link asthma to a specific facility,” says Katherine Kennedy, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that is opposing the generators. “You can’t just fingerprint the particles back to the source.”
The fact that the proposed power plants don’t yet exist makes defining their impact even more difficult. (Proponents want the turbines in by summer to avert what they say are imminent power shortages, while opponents are trying to permanently block them.) Environmental advocates have asked for reports that predict the details of what each power generator will emit and how that will compound the other environmental problems around its location, but so far the state has refused to require them.
Many people in hard-hit neighborhoods don’t feel the need for any additional evidence that nearby environmental hazards drive up local asthma rates. “It’s an intuitive understanding,” says Omar Freilla, who works for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and lives in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. “In my neighborhood, I hear kids talking about having asthma, parents talking about their kids having asthma. I don’t hear that if I walk into a supermarket on the Upper East Side. I don’t see kids on the Upper West Side with a bulge in their pocket for their asthma pump. I see that all the time in my own neighborhood.”
In the Melrose section of the Bronx, Yolanda Garcia is also convinced of the pollution-asthma connection. Garcia’s son, Ismael, died of asthma, gasping in vain for breath even with an oxygen mask affixed to his face. It was clear to her that his asthma worsened when the layer of black soot blanketing her neighborhood was deepest, that his neighborhood was literally killing him. But such gut-level knowledge isn’t worth much in court, where the fate of the proposed power plants could be decided as soon as the end of the month.
No matter how long this latest power plant controversy lasts, nailing the city’s asthma problem will take far longer. While more and more New Yorkers struggle for breath, researchers are embarking on lengthy efforts to pinpoint the culprits in our air. Frederica Perera, a researcher at Columbia’s school of public health, is going so far as to strap air-quality gauges to pregnant women in the city, hoping to measure the exact levels of pollution they’re swallowing and map it to their children’s asthma rates. Her colleague, Ginger Chew, is preparing to study bits of mouse and cockroach droppings in the air of the city’s public schools, while others are trying to figure out whether the by-products of burning natural gas—which would fuel the proposed turbines—are more or less toxic than those of coal or oil.
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.