Some call it “Asthma Alley.”
It’s a Queens neighborhood where asthma diagnoses and hospitalizations far outpace other parts of the borough.
And while there are many pollutants swirling in the air over Long Island City, or LIC, a local councilman says three nearby power plants are the chief aggravators. He’s leading a fight to require these plants to burn cleaner fuels.
Meanwhile, residents say it’s increasingly hard to breathe, and area doctors say they are seeing younger asthmatics every year.
“I have infants diagnosed with early symptoms of asthma,” said Sarah Spadafina, a family practitioner at The Floating Hospital in LIC. “That should not be.”
A 2013 report from the New York Department of Health & Hygiene states that “asthma remains an epidemic in New York,” with 1 in 10 adults and children suffering from the disease. The report also states that black adults and children experience the highest asthma rates of any ethnic group, particularly those from low-income families.
These trends hold in LIC, where asthma hospitalization rates are higher than in Queens and on a par with New York City rates. And where black adults and children are twice as likely to suffer from asthma.
In an interview with Mercedes Fuentes, 58, whose daughter was diagnosed with asthma three years after moving to LIC from Orlando, Fl, she described asthma in warlike terms.
“Asthma is an enemy that is always present,” she said. “No parent wants to see their child sick, so I’m always vigilant, watching the asthma.”
Fuentes immigrated from Costa Rica in 1987. Since her daughter, Cathy Sanchez, 25, was diagnosed, she’s nervous to travel with her anywhere. Going to visit their family in Costa Rica might expose Cathy to an allergen that will trigger an attack.
“There is always an unknown I must face,” she said.
The rate of hospitalization is one factor in determining the human costs of asthma. So are school days missed or time spent in the hospital. In those categories, The Asthma Coalition of Queens finds LIC’s asthma burden exceeds NYC and Queens rates, according to Claudia Guglielmo, the coalition’s director.
In a phone interview, Guglielmo said that although we know LIC is not doing well, explaining why in precise terms is not easy. “Asthma has so much going on,” she said. “It’s chronic, there are indoor and outdoor triggers and irritants, and there’s family history to think about.”
For an asthma sufferer, the world is full of ticking timebombs. Anything from pet dander to cold air to brisk walking can induce an asthma attack that in a worst case leads to death.
Cathy Sanchez said she can’t even push a shopping cart without using her inhaler.
“I want to go to the gym and play with my cat Simba without feeling like I can’t breathe,” she said. “It shouldn’t be like that.”
Asthma’s unpredictability also came up in a conversation with Michael Seilbeck, Policy Director at the American Lung Association. When asked about environmental factors in LIC, he explained that although LIC has terrible air quality — LIC’s air quality ranks worse than either Queens or NYC — we must be careful about attributing blame for high diagnoses to environmental causes.
The debate about asthma’s causes came up more than once in conversation. Although the causes of LIC’s asthma crisis may not be readily apparent, the reasons for its terrible air quality scatter the landscape.
There are three generating stations nearby burning fossil fuels. Two high traffic bridges to the north and south of the city. And air currents from the Midwest carrying pollutants right into this part of the river on their way to the Atlantic, according to Seilbeck. These conditions are all uncontested asthma triggers.
Some nights, when Sanchez feels an oncoming asthma attack, she knows to turn on the nebulizer to regain her breathe. “But I won’t use it because it’s so loud and I don’t want to wake up my parents.”
So she lays in bed alone, wheezing, trying to breathe and hoping that the attack will go as quickly as it came. “I know I shouldn’t, but I wait it out,” she said.
Sanchez lives a few blocks away from Queensbridge, which is the largest housing development in North America. Mold, cockroaches, construction debris, and smoke mix with the air outside to create indoor conditions that make it harder to breathe, especially for an asthmatic.
Seilbeck said that the power plants “absolutely trigger asthma attacks,” and unfortunately, housing development residents are “stuck bearing the brunt” of the city’s energy demands.
The neighboring power plants he is referring to — Astoria Generating Station, Ravenswood Generating Station, and Vernon Boulevard — produce around 50% of NYC’s energy. That’s a conservative estimate, however. Some place generation at around 75% when you account for peak energy demand times.
To feed the city’s hunger for energy, the plants use a mix of coal, gas, and oil. These fuel sources, when burned, spew toxic emissions into the air that are correlated with asthma and other respiratory illness, according to the New York Department of Health & Hygiene.
Costa Constantinides, city councilman and chair of the Environmental Protection Committee, whose son is diagnosed with asthma and reportedly takes 5 medications per day, chose to zero in on the plants to combat LIC’s asthma crisis.
Recently he introduced legislation to phase out the use of highly volatile fuels, #6 and #4, and released a public petition for “Cleaner Power Plants” to compel the plants to discontinue the use of “dirty fuel oils.”
Although LIC’s asthma crisis is an open secret, the risk of finding a story about an LIC asthmatic is minimal. Amanda McEnery, communications officer at Queensbridge, said she agrees asthma is an underreported problem.
She said that up until last year there was a mobile asthma clinic just outside the Queensbridge housing development, but they left for lack of use. She now believes it might be a lack of understanding about just how serious the asthma crisis is.
But asthma is always on Sanchez’s mind.
The first thing Sanchez does in the morning is use her inhaler. She has them scattered throughout the house, at her workplace, and in her parent’s bodega. In total, she has three prescriptions: one rescue inhaler, one daily inhaler, and steroid pills.
“Now it’s getting cold,” she said, rolling her eyes with a sigh. “The doctor gave me a stronger inhaler because the cold makes it worse.” The longest she’s gone without trouble breathing is two weeks.
The new medication hurts her lungs, so she’s resorted to using the weaker medication as the weather gives her another reason to worry.