Harlem Asthma Study Confirms WE ACT’S Claim:
If You Live Uptown, Breathe at Your Own Risk

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Press Release

Date: Wednesday, April 23, 2003
Contact: Julia Chance, Communications Director, (212) 961-1000, ext. 304 or Julia@weact.org

Harlem Asthma Study Confirms WE ACT’S Claim: If You Live Uptown, Breathe at Your Own Risk

An alarming new study, citing that one in four children in central Harlem has asthma, makes another strong case for how a disproportionate number of Upper Manhattan residents suffer from environmental threats and hazards. The study, conducted by Harlem Hospital Center and Harlem Children’s Zone, focused on about 2,000 children under the age of 13 who live or attend school within a 24-square block area of central Harlem. Results from the study indicate that Harlem has one of the highest asthma rates in the country.

“Compared to a national average of one in 16 kids having asthma, Harlem’s childhood asthma rate of one in four is mind-boggling,” says Swati Prakash, environmental health director for West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT). “We need to concentrate on the preventable exposures that may contribute to childhood asthma, and air pollution is at the top of that list.”

The study echoes findings of the EPA report, “America’s Children and the Environment,” issued in February. It states that national asthma rates doubled in recent years, and is most prevalent among low-income black children.

“Health disparities between communities in New York City continue to increase due to the concentration of polluting facilities in certain areas,” says WE ACT executive director Peggy Shepard. During its 15-year existence, WE ACT has waged numerous campaigns to tackle environmental hazards, including air pollution, lead poisoning and sewage treatment, and the health threats they pose in Upper Manhattan. Eliminating excessive exposure to diesel exhaust is paramount on WE ACT’s agenda.

“We know that fine particles from diesel exhaust can irritate the respiratory system and trigger asthma attacks,” Prakash says. The EPA has also cited diesel exhaust as a probable cause of cancer. “Given the large number of Harlem children with asthma who are vulnerable to pollution-related asthma attacks, it is more important than ever for our leaders to step up to reduce the disproportionate burden of diesel exhaust and other sources of air pollution in our communities.”

WE ACT filed a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2000, charging the Metropolitan Transit Authority with violating the civil rights of Northern Manhattan’s mostly black and Latino residents. The complaint focused on the disproportionate number of diesel bus depots in the area – six of Manhattan’s eight – and the MTA’s plans for further expansion. Thus far, the complaint is still pending resolution. Despite this pending complaint, the MTA is moving forward with its plan to reopen and expand the diesel bus depot on 100th Street in East Harlem – which leads the city in childhood asthma hospitalizations – while closing a depot on 16th Street to make way for a park.

“The MTA has to realize that they are not just in the business of moving people,” says Shepard. “They are at the nexus of transportation and public health, and must take responsibility for pollution that they inflict on the community.”

WE ACT calls upon Governor George Pataki to direct the MTA board towards rectifying the hazards that diesel buses cause in Upper Manhattan by doing the following:

  • DISCONTINUE DIRTY DIESEL – New York is one of five U.S. cities that has committed to purchasing compressed natural gas buses. Studies show that CNG buses emit 40 to 86 percent less particulate matter, and 38 to 58 percent less nitrogen oxide than diesel buses. Long Island has already converted its fleet to CNG, yet the Jackie Gleason bus depot in Brooklyn is the only depot that has them. This is despite Gov. Pataki’s 1999 directive to convert at least one depot per borough to CNG. The MTA must make good on their commitment and buy more CNG buses for use throughout the city.

  • Stop the reopening and expansion of diesel depots – The Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot is slated for reconstruction and expansion in 2005, and the 100th Street Bus Depot is to reopen later this year. These will further burden a community already suffering from an inordinate number of polluting facilities, and exacerbate existing health problems in the area.
It’s time to make a commitment to protecting the health of Harlem’s children by eliminating the toxic diesel exhaust that is making them sick. WE ACT continues to organize the communities of Northern Manhattan to demand their fair share of clean air.

Press kits and color illustrations on disk for reproduction are available from WE ACT at (212) 961-1000, ext. 304.

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