In Communities of Color, Pollution Looms over Growing Minds

By Michelle Chen Jul 29, 2009

In some New York City neighborhoods, kids may be set back in school long before they ever enter a classroom, thanks to dirty air. A new study by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health draws a connection between prenatal exposure to neighborhood air pollutants and future IQ scores. IQ tests, obviously, are an extremely limited measurement for academic ability, but the data indicates a critical link between child development and high exposures to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)—a class of pollutants that emanates from burning fossil fuels like diesel and coal. The researchers concluded, “children exposed to high levels of PAHs in New York City had full-scale and verbal IQ scores that were 4.31 and 4.67 points lower, respectively, than those of less exposed children.” Comparing PAH pollution to another major urban health hazard, lead exposure, the study weaves environmental segregation with racial segregation. Kids in the study, who were tracked from in utero to age five, are products of the racial and economic divides that define the city: their mothers are Black and Dominican American women between the ages of 18-35, living in Harlem, Washington Heights or the South Bronx. Variations based on exposure show how dirtier or cleaner air could shape a community’s social landscape. Comprehensive air monitoring in New York City is just getting off the ground, but the environmental justice organization WE ACT has for years used social mapping data to point out the obvious: poorer, Blacker and Browner neighborhoods breathe worse air. One map based on 2000 census data grafted patterns of child asthma onto a map of ecological blights like bus and truck depots, sewage treatment plants and highways. Like magic, asthma hospitalization rates dropped steeply around the line of 96th street. That latitude, not surprisingly, falls neatly at the border of the Upper East Side, an affluent neighborhood served by a huge garbage truck depot planted at the tip of Northern Manhattan, where asthma hospitalization far exceeded the citywide average. Research on communities of color in West Oakland has revealed similar results tied to diesel truck pollution. The Columbia study is yet more evidence that pollution threatens not only the bodies, but the minds of children in hard-hit neighborhoods. Yet the research isn’t intended to write off communities as environmentally doomed; it’s only useful to the extent that it fuels advocacy. The researchers stress that PAH pollution can be mitigated through measures to reduce harmful emissions. Meanwhile, activists are seizing on such data to bridge movements around environmental racism and mainstream climate change campaigns. Just as the impacts of pollution can be highly localized, so too can be the solutions. This week, the Brooklyn-based United Puerto Rican Organiztion of Sunset Park (UPROSE) unveiled a homegrown hybrid electric shuttle bus, designed to emit dramatically less pollution than a conventional bus. The "Citibus" is just a prototype, but it’s a powerful tool for teaching communities how to nurture their own movement toward sustainability. With any luck, that lesson will reach the school children in the Columbia study as they struggle to grow up in an evolving urban habitat. Image: UPROSE’s Citibus