For some near the Cross Bronx Expressway, COVID-19 is an environmental justice


This story was originally published on September 28, 2020, by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

Elisha Bouret’s 3-year-old son Miguel asks for his asthma inhaler more often these days.

Over the previous few months, as fewer cars took to the roadways near the family’s west Bronx home during the city’s COVID-19 lockdown, he rarely needed the pump, she said.

And while Bouret cannot prove it, she suspects the return of constant motor vehicle emissions from local thoroughfares — including the Cross Bronx and Major Deegan Expressways — may be triggering her son’s symptoms.

“Once the pandemic started and there were less cars in the street, my son had not had an asthma attack,” Bouret, a mother of two, told THE CITY. “Ironically, now that the outside has opened again, my son has had to use his pump a little bit more.”

His symptoms have been severe enough to warrant hospitalization four times in his young life, said Bouret — he even spent his second birthday in the hospital.

Concern over her son’s health compounds an already taxing time for Bouret and her family. Like many in Morris Heights, where she lived until recently, Bouret tested positive for the virus, as did her two sons, she said. Only she and her older son, Jonathan, who is 7, showed symptoms.

Her grandmother-in-law, Joan Terrero, a mother of 10, died from the virus in early May on her 86th birthday.

Studies point to pollution link

Mounting preliminary research, including from a team at Harvard, suggests exposure to air pollution is associated with higher COVID-19 death rates.

Nationally, this link is most apparent in The Bronx, according to a new peer-reviewed study from researchers at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry and ProPublica, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data and local mortality figures, scientists found the Bronx ranked the worst for COVID-19 death rates and respiratory hazards of the more than 3,100 other counties in the country. Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens placed second, third, and sixth, respectively.

Like Terrero, many Bronx residents included in THE CITY’s “MISSING THEM” memorial lived in neighborhoods where they were consistently exposed to a major source of air pollution: the busy expressways nearby. For about 20 years, Terrero, who raised Bouret’s husband, lived in an apartment two blocks from the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Microscopic particles emitted from road traffic can penetrate lung tissue and cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems. The city health department estimates that current levels of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, contribute to more than 2,000 deaths and more than 6,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations each year.

“Higher particulate matter is related — in the United States — to higher death rates from COVID-19,” said Michael Petroni, a doctoral candidate and the lead author on the SUNY ESF/ProPublica study. “Highways are a source of particulate matter, but we also know that they’re a source of all sorts of other air pollutants that affect people’s respiratory system.”

An outsized burden

Bronx neighborhoods like Morris Heights, which sits at the often-congested meeting point of the Cross Bronx and the Major Deegan Expressways, have shouldered an outsized burden of the city’s coronavirus-related death toll. As of late September, more than 4,000 had died from the virus in the borough, according to city health department data.

Census-tract-level highway air pollution data shows elevated air quality hazards concentrated around Morris Heights.

Source: 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment. Will Welch / THE CITY

Bronx residents, at the peak of the pandemic, were twice as likely to die from the virus as their counterparts in the city’s other boroughs.

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