Our community engagement has traditionally focused on four communities in Northern Manhattan closest to the Columbia University Medical Center: Washington Heights/Inwood and East, Central, and West Harlem. These neighborhoods, composed mainly of low-income people of color, are markedly disadvantaged, environmentally burdened, and medically underserved. Based on 2015 data, the percentage of residents who live in poverty in West and Central Harlem is 29%; East Harlem, 31%; and Washington Heights/Inwood, 27%. The racial/ethnic composition of Central Harlem is 62% Black, 23% Hispanic, and 10% White; West Harlem is 44% Hispanic, 25% Black, and 22% White; East Harlem is 50% Hispanic and 31% Black; and Washington Heights/Inwood is 71% Hispanic, 17% White, and 7% Black.
We have recently expanded our engagement to include the South Bronx. The environmental health needs in the Melrose and Mott Haven communities in the South Bronx are significant. Marked by socioeconomic disadvantage, 43% of South Bronx residents live in poverty and most are Hispanic (72%) or African-American (25%).
Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx
Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx are important areas of environmental health risk, particularly related to housing and air quality. In 2011, WE ACT, working with CEC and other partners, prepared an Environmental Health Report Card using both New York City public data and surveys of Northern Manhattan residents. Northern Manhattan received a C (below city averages because there were no remediation policies or practices in place) on 8 of 9 factors, including indoor and outdoor air quality (Northern Manhattan is home to seven diesel bus depots), lead, pests and pesticides, solid waste, healthy food access, recreational water quality, and open space. These factors contribute to high disease rates, including very high prevalence of asthma and asthma hospitalizations in Central Harlem and Washington Heights/Inwood and increased cancer rates. Cancer death rates in Central Harlem are 30% higher than in Manhattan overall and 40% higher than in New York State. Our CEC has established partnerships in Northern Manhattan/South Bronx to identify these communities’ concerns, provide information about CEHNM member’s findings that can address them, and engage community and other stakeholders in dialogues to promote sound personal and policy decisions about environmental health.
Although progress has been made, including: 1) strengthening of New York State laws banning flame retardants in children’s and babies’ products, 2) requiring schools to test their water systems for lead, and 3) the passage of two New York City laws to require the city to investigate and report on environmental justice issues in the city, we continue to collaborate with members of these communities to inspire further action.