Past Features

February 5, 2007 (Vol. 5, No. 1)

Researchers Uncover Link Between Asthma and Air Pollution in the Bronx

Map
Major Stationary Sources of Air Pollution in the Bronx.
The Bronx has one of the highest hospitalization rates for asthma in the United States and also contains many of New York City's major sources of air pollution. Now, a team of researchers in Lehman's Geographic Information Sciences (GISc) program, led by Dr. Juliana Maantay, has used computerized mapping and spatial analysis to show a definite link between asthma hospitalizations and air pollution in the Bronx.

The asthma hospitalization rate for Bronx children is 70 percent higher than that of New York City as a whole and 700 percent higher than the rest of New York State (excluding New York City), according to recent data published by the New York City Department of Health. In some cases, asthma can even cause death. The total asthma death rate in the Bronx (6 per 100,000) is double that of New York City.

Based on analyses of asthma hospitalizations in the Bronx between 1995 and 1999, Lehman's GISc team found that people living in close proximity to a major pollution source were 25 percent more likely, overall, to be hospitalized for asthma than those not living in close proximity to these sources. For those living near two or more major pollution sources, the increased risk of hospitalization jumped from 25 to 34 per cent. The affected area depended on the source of the pollution and the likely distance the pollutants would travel.

Pollution sources include major stationary point sources of air pollution, major truck routes, limited access highways, and Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) facilities. According to the New York City Department of Health, seven TRI facilities, mainly in the South Bronx, were emitting pollutants during the years studied by the team, and continue to do so. TRI facilities use, store, or emit more than a certain number of pounds of toxic chemicals per year and must self-report their emissions information to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to the public.

To gauge the impact of the pollution, the team mapped "proximity buffers" around each source to correspond to the potential distance the pollutants would travel. Depending on the particular source, these buffers ranged in distance from 150 meters to one half mile (approximately 1.5 to ten city blocks).

The team concluded that people within the buffers were not only much more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than those living outside the buffers, but also more likely to be minority and poor. Dr. Maantay noted, however, that "even when statistically controlling for poverty and race, the correlation between asthma hospitalization rates and proximity to pollution sources remains significant.

"Regardless of whether the high asthma hospitalization rates are primarily due to environmental causes or also result from the effects of poverty and other socio-demographic factors," she said, "the findings of this research point to a health and environmental justice crisis."

Dr. Maantay presented the study during a forum on current New York City asthma research at the New York Academy of Sciences on January 23, 2007. The results were also published this year in the journal Health and Place. Dr. Maantay previously presented the findings at several national conferences and symposia, including the National Research Council—National Academy of Sciences; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS); the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); NOAA-NASA Joint Symposium for Climate Studies; and the New York Academy of Medicine's International Conference on Urban Health.

The team, which includes several of Dr. Maantay's students, will continue its asthma research. In the next phase, the team will conduct air dispersion modeling to improve the accuracy of the distance buffers previously measured. It will also develop a new method of mapping to help pinpoint the actual location of the affected population, leading to more realistic estimations of hospitalization rates. The research has been funded to date with grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and South Bronx Environmental Justice Partnership.

The team hopes that its research will have applications for urban communities across the country, specifically in policy and planning decisions. The state-of-the-art laboratory used in its work is housed at Lehman and is one of only two such facilities in New York City.

More information on the study is available at www.lehman.edu/deannss/geography.