Episode 8

August 28, 2023


Air Pollution and Asthma

Hosted by

Jaron Burke Lonnie J. Portis
Air Pollution and Asthma
Uptown Chats
Air Pollution and Asthma

Aug 28 2023 | 01:05:10


Show Notes

What is air pollution and why does it matter? Join Jaron and Lonnie as they explore how air quality impacts New York City with the help of WE ACT’s Community Organizer, Tyisha Smalls and Leslie Vasquez from South Bronx Unite.

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:10] Speaker A: Welcome to Uptown Chats, a podcast where we share stories about environmental justice by and for everyday people. I'm your co host, Jaren. [00:00:19] Speaker B: And I'm your other co host, Lani. And our topic today for this show is community based air quality monitoring. But before we get into that, Jaren, can you share what we act's mission is? [00:00:31] Speaker A: I sure can. Weact's mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and or low income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices. [00:00:46] Speaker B: That's right. And an important way for community members to participate meaningfully is through community based air quality monitoring. But that's a mouthful. And there's a lot that's involved with air quality and air quality monitoring. So what is all of that? Because I feel like we've only just been talking about air quality. At least I've only really cared about air quality since those wildfires. [00:01:06] Speaker A: Yeah, I think most people probably have, but that's a great question. What is community based air quality monitoring? And I think the easiest way to understand it is to just kind of take it word by word. So let's just start with air quality. So we talk about air quality. We're really talking about how much pollution there is in the air. And by pollutants, I mean things in the air that are bad for our health. For example, particulate matter, you may have heard PM 2.5. That's a specific type of particulate matter. And it really just refers to these tiny particles that are in the air that can get deep into our lungs and can cause damage. And we don't want that. Right. They can come from a lot of things, but primarily they come from burning fossil fuels. In other words, buildings, cars, trucks, power plants, all of that stuff, including, as Lonnie alluded to, wildfires, which I think a lot of people realized and were maybe surprised by the fact that wildfires can actually impact us here in New York City. Right, Lonnie? [00:02:11] Speaker B: Absolutely. And I think it was a wake up call for everyone because it was something that most people didn't get a chance and have never really experienced before. And so I definitely remember just waking up and looking at the air quality in these numbers and making sure. What does that mean? And now I actually kind of. It's kind of a habit now to see what the air quality actually is. [00:02:32] Speaker A: Yeah. But a lot of people, because of that, actually over the last two plus months, have started to pay attention to their air quality, like looking at their weather app before they go outside or checking, for example, all the folks that work here at the react office, check the air monitors that we have which related to those canadian wildfires. We actually had a whole piece with CBS News where they actually covered the impact of those canadian wildfires on environmental justice communities and looked at different types of monitoring that were going on, including the project that we're working on here, which was really cool. It's a really exciting time for people, again, to be paying attention to air quality because at the end of the day, most people kind of go throughout their days and weeks and hours and don't really pay attention to it until something like this happens. Right? [00:03:16] Speaker B: Yeah. And I think there's always going to be a group of people who experience poor air quality much different than those who don't, let's say, have any particular health issues like asthma, any respiratory issues. And I think that's one thing that I think kind of came through, through that moment was that there are people out there who are going to be suffering a lot worse because where they have to stay indoors, they literally cannot go outside because of the issues that they have. [00:03:42] Speaker A: Absolutely. And to kind of touch on those different components that we're kind of alluding to, we actually have two great interviews that we have for you in store today. One with our very own taisha Smalls, who's going to be talking about her experience with asthma, and then Leslie Vasquez, who's going to be talking from the community organizer perspective of doing monitoring. But before we get to that, there's some helpful things that we think are useful for you to kind of have in your mind, basically like an air quality 101 just to really have some things to think about to set you up to really get the most out of those interviews. And the first one, which we already started to talk about a little bit, know, what is air quality? When we talk about air quality, air pollution, what even is that? And there's probably lots of terms of different pollutants that you've heard. So we wanted to run through those just really quickly. So, Lonnie, do you want to read off some of the names that you see here on this list? [00:04:30] Speaker B: We've got ozone. You hear that all the time. And then this one is volatile organic compounds, or vocs. [00:04:39] Speaker A: And we also got in here nitrogen dioxide or nox, you may have heard of it, carbon monoxide, particular matter we already talked about, and sulfur dioxide. And the last one lead, not something you always think about in the air. So we'll get to that. But I think one of the most commonly misunderstood pollutants is ozone. Lani, when you hear the word ozone, what's the first thing, no hesitation. What's the first thing you think of the ozone layer? Every single time I talk about this, the first thing that people think of is, like, I thought ozone was a good thing. I thought we wanted ozone. There's a difference. So there's ozone that's up higher in the atmosphere. That's called stratospheric ozone. And yes, you are right, Lonnie, that ozone is good because what does it do? What is it there for? [00:05:17] Speaker B: Dangerous. [00:05:18] Speaker A: Yes, yes. So that's the ozone layer. It's bouncing off that radiation that is damaging to us. But there's actually ozone, the same chemical, same compound, but it's down here on the ground, and it comes from a reaction of different pollutants, and we breathe it in. Obviously, we're not floating around up in the stratosphere unless we're on hang gliding out of an airplane or something, but down here on the ground next to cars and vehicles and all that, we're breathing in that ground level, or tropospheric ozone, as you might hear it referred to. And it's a very similar thing. It's doing damage to our lungs. It's not good for our health. So that's that subtle difference there. We won't get into all the different specific health impacts. But the other one, again, it's a mouthful, too. Say it one more time for me. Vocs. What does it stand for? [00:06:06] Speaker B: Volatile organic compounds. [00:06:09] Speaker A: Yeah, it's essentially something you'll smell. It kind of smells sweet. All those people out there, like, myself included, when you go to the gas station and you're like, I'm one of those people. You're like, I hate this. I'm not supposed to like this smell, but it really smells sweet. So that's an example of volatile organic compounds. So just chemicals that are released from different materials, like solvents, paints, glues, adhesives, all that stuff that kind of releases those chemicals and, again, can cause damage to your body, can be harmful to your health, which we know in our heart of hearts, when we are sniffing that gasoline smell, we're like, oh, it smells so good. I know this is bad for me. [00:06:49] Speaker B: Is it also when you have the gas stove situation, if you smell the gas from the gas stove, is that also a Voc or is that different? [00:06:58] Speaker A: So I think that's one of the components there as well. But the main thing, actually, when we talk about combustion from gas stoves and the air pollution from that is actually nitrogen dioxide. So that's one of the main pollutants. And we actually had a whole study, it's called out of gas in with justice pilot project, that looked at the impact of gas stoves on indoor air quality. And one of the biggest findings was that there are significantly elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide coming from our stoves. So not great for our health. Even though I know some people live and die, they swear by their gas stove. You have to think about the end of the day, how high of a priority is the impact of your stove on your health to you as a person and also on the planet? [00:07:39] Speaker B: And we have to think about the pollutants that are outdoors. But then also there's pollutants indoors, and sometimes those are the same pollutants, and they shouldn't be. [00:07:46] Speaker A: Exactly, yes, often not thought about. And the last couple here, just quickly, carbon monoxide. I think a lot of us are familiar with that. We have those detectors in our homes not always working. So check that a build up can come from, again, burning gasoline, natural gas, coal, all the fossil fuels. We talked a little bit about particulate matter. There's different sizes. So PM 2.5 is just one size of those particles. They're really small, just small enough to get into our lungs. But you also might hear PM ten. They're just slightly larger particles, but they're really tiny. And then the last two, sulfur dioxide. This is something that the city actually has seen a pretty big decrease. New York is a weird place where a lot of buildings have used heating oil to heat during the winter. And the old, nasty, dirty heating oil that a lot of buildings have used in the past have produced a lot of sulfur dioxide, especially linked to high sulfur coal. So we have a long history of using coal in this country, but even those heavy heating oils. But again, the city has tried to transition away from some of those, and so we've seen an improvement, but still an interesting thing to pay attention to. A lot of buildings still use heating oil. How, in 2023, are we using this nasty heating oil for our buildings? Who knows? [00:08:59] Speaker B: Transition is way too slow. [00:09:00] Speaker A: It's a little slow, but it's still there. So something to keep in mind. And the last one, again, lead can come in. Paints that we're familiar with can also make it into our air, something especially to pay attention to indoors. So when you're indoor air quality, something to think about. But that's a short list of pollutants. But at the end of the day, these are things that are important to monitor, to track. And it's something that the city and the state do some work around monitoring. There's different programs to look at those. For an example, in the city, the New York City community Air survey, or NICAs, is an example of one of those programs. And although it's a great program, obviously there's some gaps in it. So that's why community based air monitoring, something know we are engaged here with at weact, is an important way not only to involve community members in that process, but also to fill in some of those gaps. Right. Of areas that are missed because New York City is dense and there's lots of places where pollution is being emitted, but it's not being measured. And if it's not being measured, we can't get rid of those sources because at the end of the day, we're the gatekeepers, right? We're the ones who are telling our elected officials, hey, this thing in my neighborhood, this power plant, it's impacting my health. We need to do something about it. Right? [00:10:14] Speaker B: And the way to do that. So when we collect this data, is it a device that sits out and just basically takes in air and can measure all of these different pollutants? [00:10:24] Speaker A: Yeah. So there's lots of different versions of these. There's really expensive ones, as you can imagine, like the city and the state, they use much more expensive monitors. Some of the monitors that the state uses are as big as entire sheds. It's a shed full of these big boxes, and they take in air. It's really cool to see. I feel like it's like being in a space command lab. But then here at the weact office, we have these little, kind of like hand sized monitors. They're called low cost sensors, and they're much smaller and more affordable and accessible for community members and community organizations to use for this monitoring. But essentially, they pull that air in, they look at the pollution in it, and they spit you out these different numbers to know how much of those pollutants are in the air that's coming through it. Really weird, really interesting little box. [00:11:11] Speaker B: And do different monitors measure different things, or is there like a super monitor that just measures all the things we wish? [00:11:17] Speaker A: I mean, for the most part, there's different monitors for all these different pollutants. For example, the one that we have here, the weact office, just looks at particulate matter. So just those little particles in the air and even those little particles. This is something I didn't say earlier, doesn't necessarily tell you what's in those particles. It's just telling you how many of these little tiny things are in the air. But then you have to do another step of actually going through and collecting a sample, basically, on these little filters. You'll collect a bunch of them, and then you can take those to a lab, and then you can actually look at the composition. What's in those little particles to know, is it from a truck? Is it from a car? Is it from a building? Which is a whole nother level, which is really cool that you can even, this is like forensics level of analysis. But then you can really get a better sense of how worried should I be with my health? But regardless of what's in them, they can get into your lungs and be bad for you, which can lead to things, either the development of or making symptoms worse for things like asthma. Right. And we have some co workers here, in fact, who have asthma. So Taisha is actually one of those folks in our office who suffers from asthma and has had some impacts, including on a trip to six flags with us. Yes. So I think we covered some of the important pieces and anything else that you think is helpful for folks. Lonnie? [00:12:32] Speaker B: No, I think that was a great overview. I feel like I learned a lot more just sitting here. [00:12:37] Speaker A: And that is the end of air quality 101. Thank you. But now we'll go ahead and transition into our interviews. You'll hear from, again, Taisha Smalls, who is one of our community organizers here at WEAct, and Leslie Vasquez, who is from South Bronx Unite, a really close organization that works with WEact, and they also do a lot of work around air quality. All right, enjoy. All right. We are joined by our very own Taisha Smalls. Hi, Taisha. [00:13:11] Speaker C: Hi. [00:13:12] Speaker A: Do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself before we get started? [00:13:15] Speaker C: Yes. So I am Taisha Smalls, the community organizer at weact. So I've been here for about two years. [00:13:24] Speaker B: So, yeah, Taisha has been doing it all since she started. She's done so much. But I guess we can start with the question of what brings you here to talk to us about air quality and air pollution and what's your connection with it? [00:13:41] Speaker C: Well, my connection to air quality is really, I'm an asthmatic, so I've always been an asthmatic since I was young. [00:13:53] Speaker A: Yeah. So when we have bad air quality, you feel it. That's probably even more real than all the monitors and things that we have out there on a day that we have better air quality, you probably notice it. [00:14:04] Speaker C: Yeah. Like, yeah, I can smell it. Feel it. Everything. [00:14:08] Speaker A: Yeah. And I actually didn't know that you had asthma until the three of us went on a six flags trip a couple months back. That's right. And literally, as we had stepped off the bus at Six Flags, Taisha tells Lonnie and I, by the way, I have asthma. And I'm like, okay, well, it's a good thing that the air quality happened to be decent that day. This was a couple of days after New York had experienced really bad air quality as a result of the canadian wildfires. This was, I think, two or three days right after that day of like, 400, an air quality index of 400 or something like that. So really not great. And so we happened to be lucky a couple of days later to be able to go. And I found out that you had other. Did you have any symptoms? Did you experience anything while we were there at six flags that day with, like, moderate air quality? [00:14:57] Speaker C: Not particularly, no. [00:14:59] Speaker A: Okay. [00:15:00] Speaker B: We were there. You did kind of mention that no one really knew that you had asthma. But do you remember when you were first diagnosed with asthma and what that was like and how that changed anything, like your daily life? [00:15:14] Speaker C: Yeah. When I first got diagnosed, honestly, I was not allowed to go outside. I've also found out that typical allergies, like dust, pollen, simple things like that, can trigger my asthma, which can lead me to have asthma attacks. And I was very upset because I love to be outside as a kid, especially on the sidewalk with the sprinklers in the summer and everything like that. And I actually love to run and be in sports and stuff. So it really hurt my heart a little bit in the beginning. [00:15:58] Speaker A: How old were you when you found out that you had asthma to date? [00:16:02] Speaker C: I will say more like four. [00:16:05] Speaker A: Okay, so you were really young. [00:16:07] Speaker C: Yeah. [00:16:07] Speaker A: Do you remember what it was that brought it about? Were you running and had a hard time breathing and your parents were like, someone was like, we need to take you in. What brought that to your attention? [00:16:19] Speaker C: So for me, I actually had a medical issue with my heart. So with that, after that was put fixed and everything, I guess it affected my breathing, and I don't think they do this anymore, but I used to have to take asthma classes to learn more about my lungs and the understanding of asthma, what asthma is and ways to prevent it if you don't have the medications or if someone's not around and how to do it until you get to the right medical procedures. [00:17:00] Speaker B: And you grew up in New York City? [00:17:02] Speaker C: Yes. [00:17:02] Speaker B: What part of New York City? [00:17:03] Speaker C: Harlem. So, like, central Harlem, like the root of Harlem. So, like, 110th street. [00:17:11] Speaker A: And do you remember being outside after you found out that you did have asthma? Being outside and being triggered or having a harder time breathing, being in Harlem and being around any trucks or other sources of pollution? Do you remember any of that? [00:17:28] Speaker C: Yeah, actually, my breathing was like, I would start breathing very heavily. I would have to take deep breaths, and I would always have to stop consistently. [00:17:41] Speaker B: Were you ever hyper aware? I always imagine that people, once they kind of know that they have some type of condition, in this case, like a respiratory illness or issue or like asthma, were you more hyper aware of truck pollution or buses that go by? Or again, you talked about the allergens or checking to see with the pollen count. I know that was a thing that some people always check to. Did you see yourself more hyper aware of those things? [00:18:08] Speaker C: Not necessarily with the trucks or the cars, more so, like, with the pollution? Because like I said, growing up, I was always outside. So, like, going into the parks, being around trees, I kind of knew about the pollen. I never understood about pollen count, but I was always more aware of it. But I always tried to ignore it because I was like, I wanted to be a normal kid. [00:18:34] Speaker A: Yeah. Which is stressful as a kid, even adults struggle with keeping track of all those things. So, let alone when you're a kid and you're like, at the end of day, all you want to do is just play. It's the last thing that you want to have to think about. Is, is the air outside okay? Am I okay to go outside? [00:18:53] Speaker C: Yeah. [00:18:53] Speaker B: Not only do you have to worry about being okay outside, you also have to worry about being okay inside, because there are also indoor air quality issues as well. Are there any things that you think of or now that even now, kind of as an adult with your own household, are there things that you kind of keep in mind as far as indoors is concerned? [00:19:11] Speaker C: Actually, one thing I learned was the cleaning products I use for the last, I'll say, four or five years, probably a little bit longer. I've actually switched out a lot of my products for eco friendly products. Yeah. The other thing is just what I use on a daily basis, also the windows having fresh air, because I know for me, in the winter and sometimes in the summer, the way the buildings are in New York, sometimes if you have a window, is not open. So the fan, I always have to make sure, if I have a fan, I have to make sure that the fan is clean, because sometimes the dust can be on it, and it's like, when it blows, sometimes it's not blowing correctly or the air conditioner because sometimes it's blowing air even like when I was saying the air. Sometimes the apartment can get stuffy because there's no real circulations in the building or in the apartment, so that I have to make sure there's a window open sometimes and let that air come in just to circulate. Also, I sometimes have to be very careful with cooking because even though I still have a gas stove, unfortunately, the smell and the fumes from it sometimes can really, even though the food can smell really good, sometimes the other smells can knock into my airflow and it's like, okay, this is not a good idea. I have to turn on, like four or five fans or open up a window, stand next to the window to make sure that I can breathe. [00:21:04] Speaker A: We talked earlier about that day of really bad air quality from the wildfire smoke. How did that impact you? I imagine a lot of people just during that day were paying attention to the number, the AQI. But how does that translate to how that impacted your day and also any things that you were feeling in your ability to breathe comfortably or anything like that. [00:21:27] Speaker C: So it affected me a lot. I try not to worry about it because for me, worrying it makes it actually more worse. I have to pace myself, understand what was point a to point b? I actually had to wear a mask that day. I had to make sure I had my inhaler. I had to take my asthma medicine before I left and after I came back, I actually have what is called a nebulizer. I actually had to take that when I came home because since I had to come outside to the office, I had to take that when I came home. So I can tell. And it's almost like smoke inhalation a little bit, which shortens my airflow, so it makes it harder for me to think, to breathe and just try to get the words out. [00:22:21] Speaker A: Yeah, that's tough. I can only imagine what that's like. And trying to go about your regular day, come to work. And I know a lot of people, especially in the city, given the way that the city responded by not really issuing much alerts until the end of the day or like the day after, the air quality was so bad that a lot of people like you, went to work and tried to go about their normal day and trying to do your work while you're having a hard time breathing normally, and that's impacting your ability to think clearly, that's not great, and that's impacting your ability to live your life. Yeah. [00:22:54] Speaker B: And also as you're a native New Yorker, I'm pretty sure this was kind of really unprecedented in terms of the scope of this type of issue with the smoke. I know we hear a lot about wildfires in the west, but for New York City and for New Yorkers, I can imagine we weren't really prepared for this. So it's not something that you think about normally. So I guess my question would be, has anything changed now that we've had, I've had that really bad experience with the air quality and the smoke. Has anything changed in your behaviors or your habits? [00:23:28] Speaker C: Yeah, I actually bought an air purifier, so I run that usually at night when I go to bed to make sure that I can breathe because there could be times if I wake up in the middle of night and feel like I can't breathe, things like that. Also, I try to check the air quality mire in the morning to see I've also take my medication. I'm just like a little awaring of everything. And just like if I'm step in a place that does not have that's very constricted with airflow, I'm very careful, like how long I stay in that area. Yeah. And I make sure I always have my asthma pump with me. Always. [00:24:11] Speaker A: Yeah. Smart. Yes. I'm glad that you say that because I do have friends who do have asthma and who do not carry their inhaler on them at all times. And it stresses me out. And you know what, we're all adults. We have to make decisions for ourselves. But that stresses me out like no other. I'm like, please do not be around me when you have an issue like that. I'm like, I'm going to freak out. But I had two other things, and before I say them, I'll also acknowledge that checking your air quality coming to work much easier now. We actually have some air monitors set up in the office. I'll take some credit for that. Thank you very much. Oh, God. But we actually been looking at outdoor and indoor air quality here at the weact office. You can check them weact.org purple air. It's just been really interesting to see how that air quality has been fluctuating. And we saw it go up on that day where there was really bad air quality because of the wildfire smoke. But then we also were able to see what the air quality was inside of our building as well, which was cool. But two things I wanted to circle back to. One was about the asthma classes that you mentioned that you had to take back in the day. I've never heard of that before. No one has ever mentioned that to me. I'm really curious what those were like, what they actually covered and were they actually helpful? What was that all about? [00:25:23] Speaker C: To me, they were very helpful. They really just explained how asthma works, like the lungs, how the airflow comes through your heart to your lungs and the passageway, how sometimes people who have asthma have short airflow. They also taught you ways of, if you did not have your inhaler, what you can do to bring down your. To bring your heart rate down. Basically, I think one way is just like holding your hands up, if you were, like, choking or something. So think of it that way. That's how I can see it. If you swallow down the wrong pipe and you're choking, a good way is putting your hands up and then just trying to breathe. So that was one way. They teach you different breathing in. You breathe in your nose or you breathe in and out through your mouth to help bring your heart rate down. So they tell you also to stop, you have to feel your heart rate. So if it feels like it's going faster, stop. Take a couple of deep breaths, take big, deep breaths, and then go and go at your own pace. So they always instructed kids to make sure you're still a kid, you're still a human being, you don't treat yourself differently from anybody else. [00:26:52] Speaker B: I think that's a great component to it as well, to not isolate yourself, especially as a kid. [00:26:59] Speaker A: Right. [00:27:00] Speaker B: All of the things that you want to do, you can still do some of these things. You just have to take a little bit more extra precaution. And so I think that's important that kids do have to learn that, because as we learn, as we know. I also have friends with asthma who are horrible with managing it in terms of not having. They pronounce that they don't have something at the worst time. They're like, I hope nothing happens. I was like, I hope nothing happens to you because I did not take these classes. I have no clue what I'm supposed. [00:27:26] Speaker A: To say to do. [00:27:26] Speaker B: And it'll be like a frantic Google session. [00:27:28] Speaker A: Yes, we're going to throw our hands up, be like, well, we don't know what to do. Breathe slower, please. Yeah. The other thing I want to say, I really appreciate that, because, again, I'd never heard of these admin classes. Just out of curiosity, who gave those classes? Was it healthcare provider? Was it just a separate organization? Like, who actually gave those to. [00:27:51] Speaker C: Ooh, you're talking about a. [00:27:52] Speaker A: So I'm cutting back deep on those. This is a memory test also. [00:27:56] Speaker C: So hopefully I used to go to Mount Sinai on the east side. So I remember going to those classes. So I guess I had a specialist in there who recommended me to take those lung classes just in case if I couldn't go to the emergency room right away or my parents wasn't around or no one, they didn't know what to do. If I ever had an interaction with somebody who did not know what to do, I know what to do. And then I would express like, okay, the methods I'm doing are not working now. I need some medical attention. [00:28:35] Speaker A: Got it. So a little bit of empowerment. Self health care management. Empowerment. Yeah. [00:28:41] Speaker B: And also teach you to be vocal about when something's wrong. Did you have any experience throughout school system where those kind of things were reiterated or you felt like people were knowledgeable in the spaces? Or did you feel like you always had to kind of advocate for yourself to let people know that, hey, I have asthma, by the way, and kind of mentioning it, kind of like you did with me and Jaren when you went to six black with us. Like, you were just like, by the way. [00:29:08] Speaker C: By the way, I'm going to say in high school, no, because a lot of people did not know I have asthma because in high school, if I had an asthma attack, I would actually just stay home. In middle school and elementary school, I was a little more vocal because I did sports activities like volleyball, track, especially track because we would go to, I believe it was Central park and do the running track over there. I don't know if it's still there anymore. And I would have to, like, the trainer had taught me how to breathe and how to go faster, but it also affect my asthma. It helped me breathe better with my asthma. So I took those tips in and he always were like, just because you have asthma does not constrict you for anything. But he also was very, a little, sometimes he was very cautious about just like, just in case, just in case. But he always were like, do you have your inhaler pump? Okay, great. If you don't have a seat. [00:30:13] Speaker A: Yeah. I appreciate some healthy caution. That's probably for the best. Doesn't want to be pushing you to be going super fast and then have you have an asthma attack. Oh, yeah, sorry, that was my bad. Not a great look. Something that you're kind of like, circling towards. One of my other questions was thinking about school and the people around you. Did you feel like you knew other people in your life who also had asthma, did you feel like it was something that you were aware of other people dealing with? I'm thinking about growing up in Harlem, where there is a significant number of kids who do indeed have asthma. Did you see that? Did you feel that? Or do you feel like you felt kind of isolated in that experience? [00:30:57] Speaker C: I felt kind of isolated because I don't know if you ever experienced this, but I feel like a lot of people who are asthmatic back in the day versus now, we were not very vocal, so we would just hide it, because if we were, say, over asthmatic, a lot of times they would treat us differently, almost like a disability a little bit, and then just make us sit down and not participate in something. So I really never really knew anybody who was an asthmatic growing up. If they did, tell me, yeah, we hit it so well. Yeah, I'm trying to think. [00:31:35] Speaker B: The first time I noticed any kid in school with asthma, I think it was the first time I saw someone take that inhaler, shake it up and then use it. And I was like, as a kid, I was, like, fascinated. I thought it was, like, the coolest thing ever to have an inhaler. So you learn the reason why they have to have it. [00:31:52] Speaker A: I want one. [00:31:53] Speaker B: Yeah, I was one of those kids that's like, I kind of want one of those inhalers. [00:31:56] Speaker A: Yeah. You also know how expensive they are, too. It's like, okay, maybe I don't. That's like ten transformers. I don't want that. It's probably way more than that, but ten transformers. You judge the value as a child, you judge the value based on how many transformer toys that would be. Yeah, well, I appreciate you sharing that. And one last thing that stood out to me that I thought was interesting and translates to why air quality, and as it relates to asthma, is so important to talk about is the fact that you said when you had days that you were experiencing bad symptoms, you stayed home. And that really translates to kids missing days of school. So it's not just the health piece, it's also the education piece, and that translates to, later on in life, maybe some missed opportunities. I'm glad that you didn't miss so many days of school that you didn't end up here at. We act, working with us, but I imagine there's lots of kids out there who did have maybe really bad asthma, who missed a lot of school, and who maybe missed out on some opportunities that they might have otherwise gotten or would have liked to pursue. So any last thoughts for us, either Lonnie or Taisha, that you want to share before you go? [00:33:01] Speaker C: No. Well, just thank you for having me. That's all. [00:33:04] Speaker B: No, thanks for coming and sharing your story and your experience, especially given the kind of, like, awakening. I think everyone, whether they've had any health problems or asthma in New York City, kind of think everyone's a little bit more aware now of air quality and what that means for them as they kind of live their daily lives. And I would definitely invite anyone who wants to share their story or their experience like Taisha has here. They can definitely reach out to us through email for the podcast. [00:33:35] Speaker A: Yes, you can reach us at [email protected]. Nice and simple. Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Taisha. The other thing that we forgot to mention that Taisha also dropped on us at Six Flags. She's also afraid of heights. Who goes on roller coasters when they're afraid of heights? [00:33:48] Speaker B: Yeah, she was like, four roller coasters in. [00:33:50] Speaker A: Yes. [00:33:50] Speaker B: And was like, by the way, I don't like this yes. [00:33:54] Speaker A: Silliness. Well, thank you so much. Well, we can't wait to have you back on the show again soon. [00:33:57] Speaker C: Thank you. [00:33:58] Speaker B: Thanks. [00:34:10] Speaker D: My name is Leslie Vasquez, and I am the clean air program organizer at South Bronx Unite. South Bronx Unite is a community led organization that focuses on advancing environmental justice and equity in the South Bronx, New York City, the state, and all over the nation. We focus our program specifically for South Bronx residents in Mott Haven and Port Morris, but we work on policy that affect the whole city and the state. Our main focuses are air quality, green space advocacy, community land trust, and other social equity issues. I think I'll leave that there for South Bronx Unite. [00:34:48] Speaker A: Yeah. That's great. How long have you been at South Bronx Unite? And what was your journey? Getting there. [00:34:54] Speaker D: Yeah. So I recently made a year at South Bronx Unite. I was in undergrad right before joining South Bronx Unite, and I was working at Nicerta, and I had a stakeholder engagement meeting with South Bronx Unite. And Arif and Michael were a part of that conversation. And being in an organization that is mostly white led, and there's probably, like, 5600 staff. [00:35:23] Speaker A: That's at NYSerta, right? [00:35:24] Speaker D: That's at NYSEra. You don't have many people from the Bronx. And so when I facilitated that meeting, we clicked so well. And instantly after we had that discussion, I was offered a job opportunity. And so after graduating, I got in touch with Arif once again. And we're here now, and I have not regretted my decision since. [00:35:48] Speaker B: Good job, Michael and Arif. [00:35:50] Speaker A: I know, right? Really bright, hook, line and sinker. Really reeled you in. Do you have a personal connection as well to the South Bronx? [00:35:57] Speaker D: So I don't have a personal connection to the South Bronx specifically, but I've been a Bronx resident for the past 13 years and I immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 2010 and I've been a Bronx resident since. And a lot of the issues that the South Bronx faces, I used to face in the Dominican Republic and I still do now living in the northern Bronx area, I am an immigrant, I am a woman of color, I am hispanic. I grew up low income, still am to a certain extent. So I resonate a lot with the demographics in the South Bronx. And I couldn't have hoped for a better community to serve because our community members are truly amazing and the work that we do at our organization is so touching and intentional and that's why I chose to be with that organization. And yeah, everything that we do is for a purpose and it's for the purpose of advancing our community's growth and to get a step closer to allowing them to thrive. And that's what we do. [00:37:08] Speaker A: I love that. What a great sound bite. I appreciate that so much. [00:37:11] Speaker B: I know, that's amazing. And we love South Bronx unite, right? I feel like we are always together when we can be in the fight for environmental justice. One of the things that topics that you mentioned that South Bronx unites deal with and works with is air quality. So I want to jump in and ask you, when you think about air quality, what comes to mind? [00:37:31] Speaker D: Yeah, when I think about air quality, especially with the context of the South Bronx, I think of the amount of oppression that certain communities are burdened with because of their air quality. So to give some background of Moth Haven and Port Morris in the South Bronx, we are in the coast all the way at the end, and we have a waterfront that we have no access to because of the polluting facilities that create such pollution in our community. We are ground zero for warehouses, for power plants, for major highways and crossways. And because of that, and because we are in such an urban area where a lot of housing is so densely close together and we need public transportation accessible to our community members at all times, we have an extremely high concentration of pollution. And because of that, we also have one of the highest asthma rates in the whole country. And when I think of air pollution and when I think of air quality in general, I automatically think of the South Bronx and other vulnerable communities in New York City. That are being impacted by something that is completely out of their control. A lot of the conversations that we have about what can we do to make this better, the focus is really what can community members do? And sometimes that's not the case. Sometimes there's only so much that they can do to try to survive. When the polluting facilities and the lack of focus that our government officials choose to place on the South Bronx is what's causing such bad air quality, is what's causing all of this oppression. And that's my first thought when I think of that, and I automatically think of that community that we're representing. And that's why I work, and that's why I do what I do, because I hope that it's not that way in the next couple of years. [00:39:27] Speaker A: Yeah, you did such a great job of answering that question. I think you actually sort of started to answer that. The second question that we had lined up for you related to that. Just like thinking about how air quality and air pollution is showing up in your community. I think this leads me to the next question that I had, which is something that I hear a lot. I also do a lot of air quality work for. We act. And anytime I engage with conversations with folks at the city, it's inevitable that they bring up the narrative that the city has had a general trend towards improvement in air quality overall. But I know for a fact that stands in contrast to what a lot of people live and experience. So how does that narrative of an overall improvement in New York City air quality, that trend that the city and representatives of the city like to reference? How does that compare to the reality and the lived experience that you're describing of members of the South Bronx community? [00:40:25] Speaker D: Yeah. So the city has done some effort to try to improve air quality, but that is not reflected in our communities as much as we want them to. We have such a high rate and concentration of pollution on a daily basis that any effort that the city does to try to reduce, it's not really that effective and it's not as visible as we want it to be. Where the city falls short is that they continue to allow policies and polluting facilities to emit pollution. And that's exactly what's causing the issue to worsen. There is no method of reducing what we've done or retracting what we've done in the past. If we don't stop it completely, if the only way to stop a bathtub from overflowing is by shutting off the faucet, it makes no sense for you to take out water with the bucket if the faucet is still running. So, yeah, that's what's happening in the South Bronx where they're trying to implement hybrid clean buses, but in reality, they're diesel hybrid and it's still polluting. The power plants are still running. The warehouses have more traffic than ever. And we have that issue constantly. And until we address the issue at the root of the cause, it won't stop. And our communities are going to see the brunt of this effect directly through their health, through their cumulative impacts that don't just come from air quality, but also from the lack of having green space, from the lack of having accessibility to health services, from the lack of having proper employment opportunities. And so all of these burdens add up and they make our community so much more vulnerable than they already are. [00:42:20] Speaker A: Yeah. And to kind of like, summarize in some way something that you're touching on, despite this kind of overall altrend, there's still pockets, there's still communities that are bearing a disproportionate burden of this air pollution. So even if there is an overall trend in the city that doesn't take into account these concentrations, these specific communities like the South Bronx and parts of northern Manhattan, communities of color, low income communities that the city has chosen to be, we hear this term a lot sacrifice zones, essentially, they're there to bear the burden of air pollution so that we have power plants and all these other things, when the reality is that all the city should have to have their fair share of that burden. Right. It shouldn't all just be on communities of color and low income communities to bear that burden. I think that seems like that's kind of underlying there within what you're saying. Exactly. Yeah. [00:43:11] Speaker D: And it's not a coincidence. Yes, we have an overall air quality issue all throughout the city and the state. But if you look closely at communities like you mentioned, there is a huge disparity within different communities. And it's not about asking like, hey, can other people get waste transformations and can other people get polluting facilities around their communities? Unfortunately, that is what needs to happen in order to relieve the burden of certain communities. But it's also about the history that we've had with redlining and with racist policies that make this so much more evident that this is very intentional. The whole Bronx's waste management is directed into our South Bronx area in the waterfront, and we have so many other injustices all throughout that area compared to other parts of the city, especially ones that are wealthier ones that get more funding and ones that have more green space. It is a very clear and distinctive difference. And so this really is about fighting for people of color who are low income and who have other disparities. And that's why this work is so important, because if we don't do it, nobody else will. Clearly, the government will not prioritize our communities. And we love advocates that we act because we go through almost pretty much through the same disparities, unfortunately. And we have a lot of the same programs and a lot of the same intentions. And so, yeah, we appreciate you guys so much as well because the work that you guys do here also reflects in our community. [00:44:59] Speaker A: I think you kind of set us up with a great segue for the next question as well. You're making our lives so easy over there. [00:45:05] Speaker B: I was just going to say, you talked about before about that it's not just communities, but you do work with communities directly within the South Bronx. And I just want to also note that the Bronx is very large. And so there are pockets within the Bronx that have all of the great amenities. They do have the green space, they do have better air quality, but the South Bronx doesn't necessarily. So how does this air quality fight kind of show up in your work directly at South Bronx Unite? What are you guys working on? [00:45:36] Speaker D: We are currently working on an air quality monitoring project. With React's help, we will be stationing 25 air quality monitors specifically in the South Bronx for that exact reason. There are other organizations who are doing air quality monitoring work throughout different parts of the Bronx. But we wanted to focus a specific air quality monitoring project that was tailored to our community members. Our intention with this is that that data is transparent and accessible at all times to anybody that wants to specific to our community members. And with that work, we don't just want to leave it at that research point. We don't just want to use it to make a study and leave it there like many other efforts have in the past. I know that the state and the city are doing a lot of studies and there's a lot of work on that end, but it doesn't follow up with a response or a policy that is going to change the issue. So what we want to do at South Bronx Unite is have those 25 stations that are going to be intentional. We want one in front of our office, but also at specific schools, also where the power plants are and throughout specific areas that we're still trying to put into place and solidify. But we really do want to make change with that research. And we want to turn that research into something that we can use to back up the reasoning behind why we want to go forward with our waterfront plan, which is essentially implementing more green space so that our community can be more resilient. We want to expand our programs with medium to heavy duty vehicle electrification, and we want to have research behind that that can back that up. [00:47:33] Speaker A: I really appreciate some of the things that you just touched on. I think that when people think about air quality research, they forget the role that community members can and should play in that, because so much of the air quality research that's happening is at academic institutions. And like you said, there's the disconnect in translating that research into actionable steps for communities to see improvements. And I really want to emphasize the role that community members can play because I think that for a lot of people, and clearly for maybe a lot of academics out there, maybe it's hard for them to envision what that role looks like. And I want to get some of your perspective on either things that you've already planned out or a vision that you have for what that role that you want community members to play. What do you see that looking like in this process of being engaged with this air quality monitoring? [00:48:26] Speaker C: Yeah. [00:48:26] Speaker D: So their role is really the biggest component of this. And when we translate the raw numbers into an actual story that is digestible and that is understandable, they are going to be a huge asset to putting the data and the findings into, I wouldn't say add emotion into our work, but that's really what we're trying to do. They're the ones that are experiencing the brunt of this environmental injustice that we're talking about. Not just air quality, but many other things. They're the ones who know how that directly impacts them and their community and their family on a daily basis. And no research or data is ever important. If it's not understood by the people that we're doing it for. This is specifically for them so that we can shape our programs to better assist them. Their feedback, their experience, their testimonies, that's what we want to highlight into the work that we do. And if it wasn't for that, there is no purpose of having research that isn't intentional and that isn't going to be used by the community. We want it to be understood and we want it to be a story by the South Bronx, if that makes sense. A lot of times the research that is out there is not representative of the community, and community members themselves don't even know about it. And that's not what we want to do here. This is going to be very exciting for us because it's going to expand our work and we think that it's going to be very effective. [00:50:13] Speaker B: I think that's absolutely beautiful way to put that. And the need and why we need community members, even though a lot of them may not have the bandwidth to really do what you do at South Park's to advocate. But what they can do is tell their stories and they can be a part of that lived experience. Because as much as some of us can geek out with science data, Lonnie's. [00:50:35] Speaker A: Looking at me when you're saying that I did. [00:50:37] Speaker B: I looked directly into his eyes about those kind of things. That other component of, like you mentioned, where are the solutions? And sometimes those solutions are not what's best for the community. And so it takes the community to tell the people, hey, this is what we need, this is what we're experiencing, this is what we're living with every single day. And we know what's best for the community that we live in and that we want to stay in as well. [00:50:59] Speaker A: So. [00:51:00] Speaker D: Yeah, completely agree. That was beautifully put. [00:51:04] Speaker A: And to keep us moving on, I think that we've been very much touching on different aspects of this question. But I always like to circle back to it really directly and try to put as precise of a point on it because I think when we talk about environmental justice for a lot of people, it can be really abstract and really hard to nail down in a few words what that means, especially within these different issue areas. So I want to ask you to describe air pollution as an environmental justice issue in as concise of a way as you can. [00:51:38] Speaker D: That's tough. [00:51:39] Speaker A: It is challenge accepted. Right. [00:51:41] Speaker D: Challenge accepted. Okay. Well, air quality is something that we cannot escape. We need to breathe and we need to be outside at some point and even in our indoor spaces. The air quality that we breathe is something that is a need for survival. And being that whatever air that we breathe is out of our control to a very large extent, that is what makes our community very vulnerable. And because our community is so diverse and has so many different intersections, that air quality problem affects them at a very disproportionate impact. And that air quality issue is what's making our community considered disadvantaged. And it's not something that they can escape. It's something that worsens their everyday life to a certain extent, whether that's through health or their inaccessibility to go to work or even with the air quality emergency that we had a couple of weeks back, that is something that is completely out of their control. And it is an environmental injustice because it is an externality that affects their daily lives. And at some point, it's going to be an issue that's so large that we can't address it anymore. And that's why it's so important for organizations like ours to keep pushing this work forward, because the city and government aren't doing what we need them to for our communities. And so when we talk about environmental justice and air quality, it impacts everybody, not just communities of color, not just the South Bronx and East Harlem. Air quality is something that we can't contain. It's not something that is in a bubble. And the air quality that we experience here is also being transported to other parts of New York City. And it's important to address it at areas like ours first, because they're the worst, because our communities are the most vulnerable there, and because once that issue is addressed, we can improve the air quality all throughout. And why not have better air quality for all? [00:54:05] Speaker A: Yeah, I really appreciate you framing in that way and also you referencing the impact on our air quality from the canadian wildfires, because I cannot tell you how many people have all of a sudden started to pay attention to air quality issues as a result of that. And the same question I keep getting is, how does this impact environmental justice? Communities like, what does this mean? How does this relate to environmental justice? And I think it relates to so much of what you're saying, that communities that are already burdened, like the South Bronx and parts of northern Manhattan, that already have elevated levels of air pollution, they develop respiratory conditions like asthma, COPD, and other things that when these extreme events like wildfire smoke come in and hit New York City, those are the communities that are experiencing the worst burden of health related impacts, respiratory health impacts. Those are the folks that are going to end up in the hospital because they can't breathe and are having other health related conditions. So it's not a coincidence. There's an underlying issue going on there. And I think it's well put in a way that you explained it. [00:55:14] Speaker D: That's exactly right. And I also really like how you pointed out how we didn't have, or everybody overall didn't have as much of a focus on air quality until the Canada wildfires happened. And that's because it affected other people outside of people of color. That's because wealthier communities also experienced that weather related issue and because it impacted them, that's when it was broadstreamed and that's when it was so important to create action immediately. And that's when it was so important to create an emergency plan that's definitely necessary. And I'm not blaming anybody or other communities for that, but it's evident how active our government can be when it's affecting other people besides us. And although it was an issue that affected the whole state, action was done to a certain extent. I mean, it's not the greatest, but something was done for that. And so I hope we can make that issue more urgent for our communities and we can make that apparent then. [00:56:19] Speaker B: Yeah, I definitely appreciate both of you with that conversation of the idea that this event that happened, it happened to so many people and for the first time they're experiencing this. But I think the frustrating part from the advocate side is like, but we've been screaming about this for areas like the South Bronx and northern Manhattan forever. This is something that they experienced poor air quality on a daily basis for decades because of policies and decisions that are made by people who govern us. And it's really important to emphasize that. It's kind of crazy how much action happens when it happens to people who are not experiencing these issues regularly. But I do appreciate you saying that we need to be a united front and I think we should take this momentum and utilize that momentum that everyone's talking about. Air quality. Like Jaren said, I actively now check air mean, even though I do this work all the like, I check the weather and I'm like, what's that air quality looking like? And I think most people were never doing that before. And I think that's still very an empowering thing for all of us to be able to do that. And if we can think about that and a lot of people using maps and really seeing the different parts of the city, I think exposing everyone to that a little bit more gets people a lot more activated into the work that you're doing specifically in the South Bronx unite. Even though they may live in an area that isn't as impacted, but maybe now they can visualize and they can see that, oh, wow, there's an issue in other parts of the city. Even though my neighborhood and community may be fine, still, something's going on somewhere else. [00:57:57] Speaker D: Exactly. [00:57:58] Speaker A: Yeah. [00:57:59] Speaker B: So kind of along those same lines, how can people get involved to move the work that you guys are doing? [00:58:06] Speaker D: That's always a great question. We are a very small organization of three people. We are trying to expand. We're getting a new hire in September, and we're in the process of hiring other folks. If you want to be an administrative coordinator for South Bronx tonight, please go to our website. But we are an extremely small organization. We are very busy. We're not just focusing on air quality, which is super pressing and important. We're working on a myriad of different things. The best way that we can help push our plans forward is by showing support and by showing up to community events and by providing public comments and signing up to petition. Those things have been made easier throughout the last couple of years because of organizations like ours and like we act and like New York renews and other large coalitions that are leading that work to try to voice other communities and try to create tangible actions that people can take that are relatively easy, like signing on to your name or submitting a comment. Those things are very appreciated because until we have our politicians and our legislators see that community members are fighting for this just as much as the organizations are, that's when they become real to them. That's when the issue is raised a little higher in their agenda. And we really do need all of the help that we can get when it comes to actions like those. The action doesn't mean anything if we don't have any community member backup to it, if we don't have a justification from the community members that that is what they want. And so we need that to urgently happen, to make change for that. Attending events, participating in any feedback session is what shapes our policies and our programs and all of our work moving forward. And that's the best way to be as inclusive, as equitable as we can try to be with our programs. And we would also appreciate if other people outside of that community would also help support, because there is actions that they can take. There is a better tomorrow. [01:00:41] Speaker A: Is there a specific place that you recommend folks look to figure out what events that folks can show up for? [01:00:48] Speaker D: Sign up for South Bronx Unites newsletters for active actions and events that are upcoming. So when you participate our events, you have the opportunity to sign up for our events and updates and whatnot. And I encourage you guys to do this, not just for South Bronx Unite, but for we act and any other community engagement opportunity that you guys take on. But when you guys register for South Bronx Unite's mailing list, we send monthly newsletters where we send upcoming events that are happening throughout the South Bronx area, that aren't just environmental justice and policy based, but they're also based on culture and art programs that are happening that people can take on the opportunity for. We also have action items that we include where you can sign on a petition or sign your name to a letter to submit a comment. And all of those things are relatively easy. You mostly just click a button and write your name, and that action is done if you agree with it, of course. And there is a ton of opportunity to provide personal feedback for anything, whether it's hearings or testimonies. And so we encourage you guys to sign up to our newsletter, but to other grassroots organizations that are also doing similar work. [01:02:04] Speaker A: Work great. And we'll make sure to include a link for that newsletter in the show notes so folks can check that out and sign up for it. [01:02:11] Speaker D: Sounds good. [01:02:11] Speaker B: And if you've never done anything before, I've never taken action before. See how simple it is. We're just going to give you a link, you're going to click it, put in an email address, and then you've already started your journey. [01:02:19] Speaker C: Yes, exactly. [01:02:20] Speaker A: Yes. Well, thank you so much, Leslie. Any parting words? Any last thoughts that you wanted to share with us that you didn't have a chance to get in before? [01:02:28] Speaker D: Environmental justice affects us in so many ways. And because air quality is an issue that is invisible to the eye to recognize, know that you're not the only person that is experiencing this issue. Other members, especially your neighbors, especially those that are elderly, they are also experiencing health impacts and other issues that they can't control. And although this may be an issue that doesn't affect you necessarily, other people around you are being affected drastically. And we need to be better citizens and better people, and they need help. We are also experiencing, through an extreme heat. I don't even know what to call it anymore. It's not even a month or a week. [01:03:18] Speaker B: It's just, it's a perpetual moment. [01:03:21] Speaker D: Exactly. And so through this phase that we're going through, unfortunately, it's going to get worse. And we need to be supportive of everybody around us. And if we do have the resources, if we do have an air conditioner in our home and if we have some kind of health resource, please share that with whoever you can, because other people are not going through this as easy as you think. And I think I'll leave that there. If there are any questions, please feel free to reach out at [email protected] and I will answer any questions that you guys may have. Thank you guys so much for having me here. I appreciate it. [01:04:00] Speaker A: Yeah, thank you for being on the show. We'll have you back as soon as we can. [01:04:03] Speaker D: Sounds good. [01:04:04] Speaker B: Yeah. [01:04:06] Speaker A: Well, with that, we'll go ahead and wrap up. Thank you so much for listening. We appreciate you making it this far in the episode and hope that you learned something. [01:04:13] Speaker B: With that said, check out we act on Facebook at weactfordj. That's W-E-A-C-T-F-O-R-E-J. Instagram, Twitter and YouTube at weactford. That's W-E-A-C-T number four, EJ. And check out our website, weact.org, for more information about environmental justice. [01:04:33] Speaker A: And last but not least, make sure to reach out to us. If you have questions or thoughts or comments about the episode, you can reach out to us at [email protected] and you'll get a response from us. So thank you, and we'll see you next time. Bye.

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