A group photo of advocates and scientists under a tree; some people are waving, others are raising fists

Scientists and Community Leaders Seek to Clear the Air in the South Bronx

September 23, 2023

The South Bronx is the birthplace of hip hop and one of New York City’s most culturally vibrant communities. Circled by highways and dotted with truck depots, waste transfer stations, and power plants, the area is also a dumping ground for pollution. A new collaborative effort between scientists and activists aims to expose those pollution sources with the goal of clearing the air.

Markus Hilbert speaks into a microphone standing next to Mychal Johnson. Both stand in front of a chainlink fence with a sign that reads in part, "Flush truck debris from Con Edison underground structures, all other wastes not accepted."

Columbia Mailman Professor Markus Hilpert (right) and Mychal Johnson of South Bronx Unite (left) stand and speak in front of a power plant on the Bronx waterfront. Photo: Lindsey Seide courtesy of South Bronx Unite 

A research project organized by environmental justice group, South Bronx Unite, and environmental health scientists at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health will install 25 air pollution monitors in strategic locations throughout the neighborhoods of Mott Haven and Port Morris, as well as a control monitor in leafy Riverdale. Timed for Climate Week, a kick-off event in the María Sola Community Greenspace adjacent to the Major Deegan Expressway introduced the project to community members, activists, city agency staffers, and Columbia Mailman faculty and students.

Air pollution in the South Bronx has had a detrimental effect on the health of residents, most of whom are low-income people of color, contributing to what is one of the nation’s highest rates of asthma. Mott Haven is often referred to as “Asthma Alley.” “As the result of toxic air, people are suffering from a range of illnesses,” said Arif Ullah, executive director of South Bronx Unite. “From the womb to the grave, a person’s life is impacted by exposure to air pollution. … Everyone deserves to breathe clean air. Clean air should not be a luxury; it is a human right.”

A chainlink fence with green leaves of a tree in the background. Signs read "Beautification This Site María Sola Community Greenspace" and "South Bronx Unite"

Outside the María Sola Community Greenspace in Port Morris. Photo: Lindsey Seide courtesy of South Bronx Unite.

The new project follows the model of an earlier research collaboration funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health that used seven monitors to document traffic related to the opening of a massive grocery warehouse. “We were able to highlight the environmental impacts of the new facility on the community,” said Markus Hilpert, associate professor of environmental health sciences and one of the project’s leads. Their findings were published in peer-reviewed journals and disseminated to community members through regular outreach events. The collaborators have also been working in a local high school—the Lab School for Finance and Technology—to introduce students to concepts of environmental justice and to do hands-on research, including building their own air monitors.

The South Bronx air pollution research is driven by the community and designed to answer the questions they pose, said Steven Chillrud, Lamont Research Professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and frequent Columbia Mailman collaborator. Of the latest effort, which is funded through the New York state Dept of Environmental Conservation, he said, it is “exciting to see it grow in size and impact.” The new project will more than triple the number of sensors of the previous project; and the state-of-the-art monitors it employs will allow for more detailed analyses.

An air pollution monitor installed on a fire escape

An air pollution monitor installed on Lincoln Avenue. Photo: Lindsey Seide courtesy of South Bronx Unite.

Minute by minute, the monitors measure levels of PM (particulate matter), CO, NO, NO2, and O3—substances linked unwanted health outcomes. An airflow sensor will help pinpoint air pollution sources. Evan Cross, chief science officer of QuantAQ, the company that makes the monitors, said the data collected can be harnessed to raise awareness of the specific harms of polluting sources, in order to effect change. “We can use data to tell stories,” he said. “We can shift the narrative with those stories. That’s power.”

As part of the September 19 launch event, South Bronx Unite co-founder Mychal Johnson led a tour of local pollution sources, including four waterfront “peaker” powerplants installed in the early 2000s a temporary solution for short-term periods of high energy demand; today they are used on a regular basis. Tour participants also saw waste transfer stations, warehouses, and an oil storage facility, all of which contribute to heavy diesel truck traffic, as well as other industrial and construction sites that create thick dust clouds of particulate matter, noxious smells, and noise.

Amidst the evidence of environmental injustice, Johnson pointed to a glimmer of hope in the form a recent policy win. New York states’s new cumulative impacts law, S8830, is designed to prevent the approval and re-issuing of permits for actions that would increase inequitable pollution burdens on disadvantaged communities. He said peer-reviewed research conducted with Columbia Mailman scientists helped advocates successfully lobby for the law. Looking ahead, Johnson and his colleagues envision a greener neighborhood where the infrastructure of pollution would be replaced with public amenities such as waterfront green space and an urban farm.

But for now the South Bronx has among the least public green space in the city, and many of its streets lack a tree canopy, making heat waves more dangerous even as a warming climate makes them increasingly common. Meanwhile, the waterfront is vulnerable to flooding. “It’s Climate Week, and that is important for what is happening in communities like ours,” Johnson said. “It’s not just about what’s happening globally. It’s what’s happening locally. We’re suffering from the first effects of climate change.”

Photos by Lindsey Seide courtesy of South Bronx Unite