by Gregory M. White
Winter upon its city streets, the Lower East Side’s air breathes with a crispness of cold encouraging its citizens to scarf wearing. But as children huddle and hurry to school something much more sinister than sub-freezing temperatures or icicle crystals is lurking in their lungs.
Asthma, the upper-respiratory ailment, is being brought to the Lower East Side’s attention. The Asthma Free School Zone initiative, which has been active in New York City since 2002, is beginning to take root in the schools of the LES. The goals of the organization are broad, but they are seeking to change the city’s views on air cleanliness. Lori Bukiewicz, of Asthma Free School Zone, said their plans for the Lower East Side are simple.
“We want to find out what people are breathing on the streets,” she said.
The initiative plans to do this by installing censors that test air quality in area schools and public housing. The censors will be deployed 4 weeks at a time every season to detect the polluting chemicals PM 2.5, black carbon, and ozone that cause and increase the risk of asthma.
The program is being instituted in PS 2, 137, and 142 on the Lower East Side. It is already functioning in 210 schools throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Asthma Free School Zone focuses on elementary programs because of the unique threat of pollution in early age onset of the chronic condition. Bukiewicz felt the Lower East Side had a very real need for the program’s attention.
“There are a lot of schools there and a lot of people living in public housing,” she said.
The area is also full of pollutants, according to Bukiewicz. This is due largely to traffic in the area, as well as power plants that produce smoke further polluting the neighborhood. Bukiewicz hopes the initiative can help to reduce these emissions and that results of testing could lead to changes.
“Maybe it means tighter regulation on power plants…certainly traffic is a concern,” she said.
Bukiewicz said that their work detecting pollutants could be, “just the tip of the iceberg.”
The seriousness of asthma is something doctors are seeing in their daily work. Dr. Teresa Smith-Ball has found that the ailment is often a collection of symptoms as much as a chronic disease in need of diagnosis. In her 20 years of family practice, Dr. Smith-Ball has found exercised induced asthma her most common form of the condition. She cites the prescription of inhalers as a high sign of people exhibiting a form of the condition.
Of all her patients, “a full fifty percent, at some point, I’ve given inhalers to,” she said.
Asthma affects about 20 million Americans, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Asthma comes in two key forms, non-allergic and allergic. The pollutants found in car exhaust and poorly ventilated buildings often trigger allergic asthma. The Asthma Free School Zone initiative seeks to find these sources of allergic asthma and construct ways to influence communities to change policies to confront them.
Since its initiation, Asthma Free School Zone has garnered several awards including the US EPA Children’s Environmental Health Excellence Award in 2005.
Idling is also an important aspect of the campaign. Cars often wait while still running outside schools across the city, and the Asthma Free School Zone would like to encourage parents to stop the habit to cut back on air pollution. The organization holds an Idle-Free NYC day yearly, and will be doing so in May of 2009.