Cloud Over Bronx Air Study

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People in the South Bronx communities of Hunts Point, Mott Haven, and Port Morris say they don’t need a study to know they have a problem with asthma. They do wonder about the causes, however, and they are demanding greater involvement in a new state study designed to determine exactly that.

Given the 31 waste-transfer and garbage disposal centers in the area, residents have long assumed the high rates of upper respiratory distress are a direct result of air contamination. Yet they lack hard scientific evidence. With an $800,000 research grant from the federal Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the state Department of Health hopes to change this. The agency is planning a three-year study, beginning in May, to find the relationship between specific air contaminants and asthma attacks.

But community leaders say the project is seriously flawed because its designers never sought community input. “We have something to add. There is a lot of knowledge [about asthma] in the community.” says Marian Feinburg of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition. “One of the things that happened as a result of community agitation [in the past] is that there started being money around for asthma prevention and research. It’s really important to us that it gets done right.” She says it took 25 persistent calls to Albany just to get DOH representatives to come to the Bronx in February to explain their plan.

Coalition members fear the study may be useless because of where the air monitoring station is located, on the roof of IS 155 on Jackson Avenue. “IS 155 seems like it may not be where the most pollution is and where the sick people are,” Feinburg says.

The state researchers will collect air contamination data from the South Bronx and compare it to information gathered at Mabel Dean Bacon High School in lower Manhattan. They will compare the data with local emergency room data from asthma attacks. Over 16 contaminants thought to affect asthmatics will be measured, including ones not previously measured in relation to asthma.

Faith Schottenfeld, a public health specialist for the health department, explains that the process of obtaining grant money was so rushed that it was virtually impossible to involve the community.

According to Schottenfeld, the site will not be changed because there are no other state-certified monitoring stations in the area.

After getting an earful of criticism at the February meeting, Schottenfeld said the state would address some resident concerns. For example, she said, the state would consider collecting data on particulate emissions from the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Waste Incinerator in a bid to determine if there are any links between the emissions and asthma.