Air Quality is a Persistent Source of Inequity for Some Communities


June 21, 2023

By: Jenny Veloz & Julie Kronick

The second week of June, New York was blanketed by orange skies and smoky haze resulting from Canadian wildfires. These wildfires resulted in poor air quality throughout the state and created a health and environmental emergency. Although the wildfires were hundreds of miles away, many in New York and other parts of the East felt its effects. For example, New York City recorded the worst air quality among major cities in the world, exceeding an air quality index (AQI) of over 300, reaching hazardous levels—check out this Live Science article to read more about the wildfires impacted New York City’s air quality. Normally, New York City records an AQI in the “good” range, typically between 15 and 40. But the high levels that hit New York City due to the Canadian wildfires put many New York residents in danger, and it is only in the last few days that the conditions have made their way down to “moderate” compared to “unhealthy”, according to a recent Time Magazine article.

New York City’s air quality spike threatened the health of our most vulnerable populations. Older New Yorkers, children, and individuals with respiratory and heart conditions were advised to stay indoors. Those who ventured outdoors were advised to take precautions like wearing masks to mitigate the danger to their health. New York City saw an increase in asthma related emergency room visits, with over 1,000 visits throughout the city. That was a 10% increase from the same time last year, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). The majority of those visits came from zip codes in primarily Black and Latine communities, as well as zip codes from higher poverty rates, which you can read more about here. Residents in these areas already contend with poor health, which was worsened by the wildfire smoke event.

As is evident from this data, the emergency AQI event exacerbated a larger problem that already exists in environmental justice communities: poor air quality and the related environmental based health conditions for adults and children. Historically, environmental justice communities are (and continue to be) negatively affected at higher rates by poor air quality, among other environmental hazards. These communities are often low-income communities of color living near highways, power plants, and transportation depots that emit toxic pollutants (such as PM2.5, carbon monoxide, etc.) contributing to a decline in health and related conditions. According to the most recent city data, asthma-related emergency department visits in NYC for children ages 5-17 were more than six times higher in very high poverty neighborhoods—neighborhoods most impacted by environmental racism (the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color). This illustrates that stepping outside of your home to be confronted with air quality that negatively impacts your everyday health is something that many NYC communities already struggle with, regardless of emergency events. Read more on the connection between poverty conditions and asthma in New York communities here.

New York needs to enact solutions to mitigate poor air quality in communities affected by environmental racism. As part of our priorities, CCC continues to advocate for policies that will help reduce pollutants that worsen respiratory conditions in children, like asthma and bronchitis. One measure taken to improve air quality in the city includes the passing of Local Law 120 in 2021, which mandates the transition to an all-electric school bus fleet in the city by 2035. The State can also act to pass the SIGH act, which would prohibit new school construction within 500 feet of a highway. Car exhaust is the cause of 4 million new cases of childhood asthma worldwide each year, according to a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health. Take action on the SIGH act with NY Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) here.

It is also clear that climate change is having an impact on air quality, outside of existing problems with pollutants. With this we are already seeing an increase in fire-related events like the Canadian wildfires–a 2021 study concluded that climate change has been the main driver of the increase in fire weather in the western United States, for example. We can no longer ignore the impact air quality issues have and will continue to have on our local communities and the futures of our children. We must address these issues with proactive environmental priorities.

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