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Environmental racism in the Bronx: Why the asthma rate is so high in the borough

Posted at 6:39 PM, Oct 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-19 18:39:42-04

THE BRONX — A 15-year-old Bronx student is under pressure not just not just academically as she adjusts to remote learning during the pandemic, but also as she makes simple, ordinary moments, as her respiratory system works overtime for the next breath.

That’s what asthma does to Ilyna Hernandez and others like her.

"I feel like there's somebody sitting on my chest," she said.

She was trying to go to sleep before one of her most recent asthma attacks. Hernandez' mother was asleep on the sofa, so the teen woke her up.

"And she had to call the ambulance," Hernandez said. "They came and they picked me up, and they took me to the hospital.”

In the South Bronx, the teen is not alone. Her mother, Gina, is well aware that it is not a coincidence.

"You can notice the difference, the thickness of the air," the mom said. "I mean, I travel to Brooklyn, I got to Queens sometimes, and the air mass feels very different. It doesn’t feel as stuffy, it’s a different odor, everything."

Health experts have long attributed increased health issues in South Bronx to the effects of environmental racism: the intentional racial discrimination in infrastructural and environmental policy making.

Specifically, it's the planned and deliberate targeting of Black and Brown communities in deciding where to place roadways, toxic waste facilities, along with industrial and commercial sites like bus depots and tractor trailer distribution centers.

Dr. Robert Bullard, distinguished professor at Texas Southern University, is widely regarded as the “Father of Environmental Justice."

“It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out you’re gong to get high levels of asthma, respiratory illnesses, disease, diabetes," Dr. Bullard said. "You start naming the illnesses that can be traced back to environmental exposure, and you can understand that this whole idea of environmental racism, it’s not something just made up by some radical sociologist. It’s real,"

New York City Department of Education statistics show child asthma emergency room visits in Hunts Point are nearly twice (432 vs 223) what they are citywide.

In the neighborhood of Mott Haven, where Hernandez and her mother live, it’s triple (647 vs 223) the citywide rate.

Why? If you take out your phone, find the South Bronx in your maps app, a search for “Transfer Station” produces markers for almost a dozen facilities.

Urban planning projects, led several decades ago by the late master planner Robert Moses, ultimately encircled the South Bronx inside a ring of major highways: the Cross Bronx Expressway to the north, the Major Deegan Expressway to the west and the Sheridan Expressway to the east.

The result? Residents are forced to live in, around, and under a haze of transportation generated air pollution.

Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite, said those decades old decisions continue to put his neighbors at an dangerous health disadvantage during the coronavirus pandemic.

“These pre-existing conditions have been caused because of the top down planning, has made our community more susceptible to getting high rates of COVID, and high rates of COVID fatality," Johnson said. "Our children deserve the same type of air quality that they do in more economically affluent white communities in this city."

Julie Tighe, president of New York League of Conservation Voters, said a push for clean energy trucking would be a solid start.

"We think it's time for something to change," Tighe said. "I think the state of New York has passed a law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, that requires a look, not only [at] what we can do to reduce emissions, but also at how we can make sure we’re getting at pollutants, making sure we’re tracking them, and making investments in those under-served and overburdened with pollution communities to help counter those years of environmental racism that occurred."

Reducing air pollution rates in Ilyna Hernandez’s South Bronx neighborhood is a matter of life and death.

"Right now, I could barely breathe as I'm talking to you," the teen said.

For her mother, it amounts to managing a situation which, frankly, is out of her control.

"It's hard to see your child go through that and you can't help her," the frustrated mom said.