Air—and what’s in it—is under unprecedented scrutiny. COVID-19 has us masking up and concerned about what we are inhaling. While we’re at it, we should remember that the virus isn’t the only airborne risk to our health.
Emissions from power plants, cars, and even household products can put our health at risk and are also linked to asthma and other respiratory problems.
The Trust has long been a champion of clean air, especially in communities that are disproportionately burdened with power plants, transportation infrastructure, and other sources of air pollution.
One way our city can reduce air pollution is to replace dirty “peaker” power plants that burn oil and gas with ones that use renewable energy. Designed to meet “peak” energy demand during the heat of summer, peaker plants often run on particularly dirty fossil fuels such as oil and kerosene and are located in low-income communities with large Black and Latinx populations, including the South Bronx and Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
“The existing fossil-fuel industry, utilities, and grid operators are resistant to change, and want to continue to operate new gas plants rather than innovative clean energy technologies,” said Lewis Milford, president of Clean Energy Group, which is using a $100,000 Trust grant to make the case locally for transitioning away from peaker plants. This requires complex and expensive analysis to demonstrate that renewable energy can be a reliable, cost-effective alternative. But most community groups do not have sufficient resources to pay for that kind of analysis. Clean Energy Group’s approach is paying off. The New York Power Authority announced recently that it would work to replace peaker plants with renewable energy solutions.
A recent Harvard study found that residents of areas with high-particulate pollution are 8% more likely to die from COVID than those who have better air quality. Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environment Health has conducted research on the effects of urban pollution on the health of infants and pregnant women, and it will look at the impact of the unique situation created by COVID-19.
Due to stay-at-home orders, reduced human and industrial activity has also meant a dramatic decrease in air pollution from transportation across the city. With $20,000 from The Trust, the Center will look at how this reduction has impacted the health of children and adults relative to previous years, and the economic benefits of better health and cleaner air.
“People seem to have accepted the continued use of fossil fuels and the dirty air that goes with it as a cost of modern life, of a strong economy,” says Arturo Garcia-Costas, Trust program officer for the environment. “That is no longer the case, if it ever was. In the 21st century, there are far better alternatives that will save lives.”
Changing the mindset of a community about air pollution is a challenge being undertaken by El Puente de Williamsburg. The nonprofit is based in a neighborhood affected by air pollution from the nearby Williamsburg Bridge and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, along with traffic to nearby industrial areas.
“We found that many people in our community were unaware of just how polluted the air in our neighborhood is,” said Leslie Velasquez, environmental justice program manager at El Puente.
With a $150,000 grant from The Trust, the nonprofit is working to raise awareness about the impact and alternatives to air pollution and to push the city to adopt its recommendations to improve local air quality. Its work has led to mothers in the community becoming leading voices for the campaign. El Puente also works with artists to produce visual and performance art and social media speaking to the issue.
Consumer products such as rugs and paints are a regular part of our lives, but most people don’t consider the harmful chemicals these products may emit, known as “off-gassing.” These chemicals can potentially cause damage to the lungs and skin, affect brain development, and trigger asthma attacks. Advocacy efforts by the Healthier Products Coalition and funded by The Trust have led Home Depot to end all sales of carpets and rugs containing harmful additives. Another milestone for the Coalition was when New York State adopted the group’s criteria about indoor air pollution. A new $120,000 grant will enable the Coalition to develop a set of “healthy carpet” criteria for large purchasers, educate manufacturers about new research, and work to ensure products coming to market are less harmful.
The well-documented hazards of lead to humans have caused this toxic metal to be removed from many products in the U.S. But small aircraft are still allowed to use leaded gas—making them the number one source of lead in the atmosphere. Locally, this means planes landing and taking off from Teterboro and MacArthur airports are putting children at risk for developmental delays and contributing to high blood pressure in adults. Earthjustice is using a $125,000 grant from The Trust to support efforts to compel the federal government to improve lead protections. It also will work with 10 states and cities on legal strategies to reduce lead poisoning, extending that support to a national network of organizations.