Sickness and health in East Harlem

By Michelle Chen Apr 17, 2009

East Harlem has emerged as a flashpoint in the crossroads of science, public health and social inequity. An extensive study based at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center has released new findings about health risks that plague children of color in urban communities. Researchers stressed the potential impact of certain chemicals prevalent in East Harlem’s environment on childhood obesity—an epidemic that is linked to health problems ranging from diabetes to asthma. Compared to a national sample of children of the same age, children in the East Harlem study, aged six to eight, carried higher levels of phthalates, chemicals known to be “endocrine disruptors” that could affect hormonal development. Levels of the chemical DCP, linked to household sanitary products, were three to ten times higher than in the comparison group. Though the exact effects of the chemical exposures are unclear, Mount Sinai pediatrician Dr. Maida Galvez recommended in a press statement that "families avoid use of mothballs and toilet bowl deodorizers in the home,” noting that these substances are barred from public schools. (Colorlines reported last year on the suspected link between chemicals in plastic products, such as water bottles and food wrappers, and early puberty in young girls of color.) The multi-year Mount Sinai study has outlined how everyday facets of the urban landscape also shape a child’s health. Access to healthy food sources is another obstacle, as children who live on a block with at least one bodega are more likely to be overweight. About three quarters of the children surveyed in the study “lived in Census blocks with no grocery stores, specialty stores, or restaurants.” And in an analysis of census tracts with different racial concentrations, all of the Black census blocks “had neither supermarkets nor grocery stores.” The Mount Sinai project, as well as other research efforts, have also drawn connections between neighborhood conditions and family health. A lack of clean public spaces, or fear of what might happen on the streets, could keep a child indoors, limiting opportunities for recreation and physical activity. For children robbed of the right to play in their own communities, poor health is just one symptom of a chronic social ill. Image: The East Harlem Festival De La Tiza (East Harlem News)