On 09.10.14, the AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE) organized a lecture and panel on environmental justice and the particular issue of air quality and toxic conditions in buildings. The interdisciplinary panel for “Can I Breathe at Your Place Tonight? – Environmental Justice and Buildings” brought together three veterans from diverse sectors in the environmental justice field: Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Al Huang, a senior attorney at the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) Urban Program in New York, and Dr. Maida Galvez, associate professor of Preventative Medicine in Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
The Environmental Justice Movement aims to redistribute the disproportional burden of environmental waste, toxins, and hazards in low-income and minority communities in the belief that everyone deserves a healthy environment. In addition to protection, the movement seeks to establish an equal voice in decision-making. According to WE ACT, the eight indicators for a healthy community are clean air; affordable, equitable transit; waste, pests, and pesticides reduction; access to toxic-free products; access to good food; sustainable land use; open and green space; and healthy indoor environments.
Shepard began with a history of WE ACT’s work in New York. She recounted the first study of respiratory conditions across different zip codes in the late 1980s. We now know that low-income and minority communities experience asthma at rates multiple times that of their affluent counterparts. In 2003, The New York Times reported that 25.5% of children in Harlem suffer from asthma, in comparison to the national average of 6%. Nearly one-third (32.3%) of children who made asthma-related emergency room visits were from the Bronx, a rate of 12.2 for every 1,000 children, in comparison to 5 for every 1,000 children city-wide. Statistics across the country are similarly askew: in 2008, African-Americans were found to have a 35% higher rate of asthma than Caucasians, and African-American children were found to have a 260% higher emergency room visit rate, 250% higher hospitalization rate, and 500% higher death rate from asthma in comparison to white children.
Shepard’s activism has led to the elimination of considerable sources of pollution in West Harlem and Northern Manhattan. In 1993, after years spent fighting to change practices at the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, WE ACT reached a settlement for a $1.1 million fund to address community health concerns. The sewage plant itself opened after the Clean Water Act prohibited waste disposal in our rivers. In another lawsuit, WE ACT was instrumental in the MTA’s shift to alternative fuel sources for buses. With one-third of the city’s entire bus fleet and five of the six Manhattan bus depots housed in Northern Manhattan, this shift represents a significant mitigation in air pollution for area residents. WE ACT also worked to stop the reopening of the 135th Street Marine Transfer Station in 2003, which closed after Mayor Giuliani shut down the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. Currently, WE ACT is holding a charrette to repurpose the site as a community resource.
Asthma is triggered not only by outdoor pollutants, but also by poor indoor conditions: mold, moisture, and pests, such as cockroaches, mice, and dustmites. As Huang argued, the failing infrastructure in New York’s public housing is not simply an issue of maintenance, but a pressing public health issue; if the NYC Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) housing developments constituted its own city, it would be the 21st largest city in America. Huang identified the dearth of ventilation in bathrooms, condensation due to the absence of pipe insulation after asbestos removal, and broken roofs as the largest problems facing NYCHA’s housing.
Huang led a class action lawsuit against NYCHA with 10 children and two elderly persons living in public housing with asthma. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he and the NRDC argued that asthma is a disability, and therefore NYCHA, as a landlord, must make reasonable accommodations for its residents with asthma. Before the lawsuit, repairs would take place three to six months after notification, and the city focused on topical solutions, such as repainting over mold. The city promised to drastically change its policies: now, if a one- to two-day repair is requested, it must be completed within a week, and a three- to four-day repair within two weeks. NYCHA must act by these standards 95% of the time, and, importantly, it is now committed to handling repairs with a longer-term approach, targeting the root causes of moisture.
Although this is a major improvement, much of New York’s public housing is old and in need of major capital improvements for which there are not sufficient funds. Hopefully, the health concerns of tenants will receive more attention during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term. Already, de Blasio has invested $210.5 million in creating safer environments in NYCHA’s housing developments; yet, while the press release includes strategies to better the physical environment, it does not mention plans for improving building infrastructure.
Galvez focused on the unique vulnerability of children and the need to site buildings and design spaces used by children carefully. She called for greater testing measures before locating important buildings like public schools. She brought up the case of the P.S. 51 in the Bronx: two years after opening, it was discovered to be built on the site of a former automechanic and a lamp factory. The NYC Department of Education voluntarily tested the site and found endangering levels of the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene, at nearly 10,000 times what is considered a safe level, coming from a pool of solvent underneath the site. Other hazards can be avoided by not placing schools in close proximity to industrial sites or bus depots. Galvez argued for holistically healthy spaces – given NYCHA’s 20 acres of open space, she encouraged the creation of well-designed outdoor spaces that encourage activity, play, and engagement in the environment as well as within the community.
As Shepard said towards the end of the event, the public and our government do not take health risk seriously. We are both ignorant about and hesitant to recognize the threat of harmful chemicals in our environment. As we are universally exposed to more chemicals than at any point in history, we need to be increasingly protective of the safety of our living environments. Further, we need to be vigilant in ensuring that waste and environmental hazards are distributed equitably, and not concentrated in low-income and minority neighborhoods. At a time when the EPA estimates that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, the safety of buildings is paramount. For many New Yorkers for whom toxic conditions in the home are even worse than pollutants outdoors, from sewage, trash, diesel, factories, and other sources, there is no refuge. All New Yorkers have a right to shelter that is physically, environmentally, and psychologically sound.
Event: Can I Breathe at Your Place Tonight? – Environmental Justice and Buildings
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.10.14
Speakers: Dr. Maida Galvez, Associate Professor, Preventative Medicine, Pediatrics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine; Al Huang, Senior Attorney, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) Urban Program in New York; and Peggy Shepard, Co-Founder and Executive Director, WE ACT for Environmental Justice
Organized by: AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE)
Sponsored by: ConEdison Green Team