A swarm of parents and kids filled the sidewalk outside North Brooklyn's PS 132 on a steamy June afternoon. Just feet away, a steady stream of large trucks rumbled down Metropolitan Avenue, the fleet nearly outnumbering the passing cars.
About half of the trucks were en route either to or from the neighborhood's 19 waste transfer stations, where garbage is shifted to 18-wheelers for shipment out of state. For the after-school crowd, the vehicles left a haze of diesel fumes, a known asthma trigger and a recently declared carcinogen.
The congested scene is fairly typical here. Christina Reich, who was among the crowd with her son, said that she's seen an increase in daily truck traffic in the years since the 2001 closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island required more garbage to be handled by transfer stations.
A study by the Brooklyn-based Organizations United for Trash Reduction and Garbage Equity (OUTRAGE) in 2009 counted 362 trucks per hour at six major intersections across the neighborhood, up from 300 in 2004. The study saw a four-fold increase at some intersections. Further, the study found more than three times the air pollution on days when the waste transfer stations were operating, as compared to days they were closed.
"I'd move upstate in a heartbeat if I could, to where there's clean air and water," added Reich, referring to the brunt of a toxic oil spill and other industrial pollution that has burdened her neighborhood over the years. "But I'm a single mom and I can't afford to move anywhere."
As is the case for many of the nation's urban centers, toxic troubles often weigh heavily on minority and low income communities in New York City, said Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.
"The starkest disparity is the city's waste management system," he said. "And Ground Zero is North Brooklyn."
More than 20,000 tons of garbage -- about the tonnage of a small cruise ship -- is created on an average day in the city. Approximately 34 percent of that waste is hauled through North Brooklyn, according to calculations done by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest based on the city's data. The South Bronx, home of the second-highest concentration of transfer stations, sees about 31 percent. Meanwhile, Manhattan handles none of it.
Environmental advocates connect this unequal distribution of garbage to a range of health disparities, especially among children. Kids in North Brooklyn and the South Bronx, they say, suffer more than their share of asthma -- over 15 percent in some areas.
The deluge of garbage trucks after Fresh Kills' closure "coincided with skyrocketing asthma rates," noted Bautista.
In response to the growing need, Dr. Cascya Charlot recently opened a second office of her asthma practice in North Brooklyn. "We do see a lot of kids with asthma," she said. "The number has definitely not gone down."
Pat Dobosz, a preschool teacher in the neighborhood, agreed. "Our children come in at three and four, many with severe asthma diagnoses," she said. "Last year, I had a class of 18 children and about a third had a pump or aspirator on hand at the school in case of an emergency."
While a number of factors can contribute to asthma, including secondhand smoke and pollen exposures, evidence increasingly points to a potent role for diesel exhaust.
"In busy urban areas with a lot of truck traffic, there is a lot of fine particulate matter from diesel exhaust. This is particularly toxic," said Dr. John Balmes, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "If a child has asthma, the exposure can cause an exacerbation."
What's more, pollution stirred into the air at the waste transfer stations could add to the burden.
Awareness of diesel's toxicity and a growing understanding that children who live near waste facilities tend to come from poor families -- which may make them more vulnerable to the pollutants due to greater stress and limited access to health care -- has led California to "get tough about diesel," added Balmes, who is also a member of the California Air Resources Board.
"The trucking industry hates us," he said, noting that the state has begun mandating that diesel trucks and buses get retrofitted with filters or replaced with cleaner vehicles. "You can't really control urban particulate matter levels unless you control diesel emissions."
New York City has also cracked down on diesel exhaust with a retrofit program to clean up waste management trucks, according to the Department of Sanitation. However, as OUTRAGE points out, the majority of the trucks hauling garbage in North Brooklyn belong to private companies.
In 2006, the city also unveiled a new plan for the city's management of solid wastes, which would reduce garbage truck traffic by enlisting more barges and trains to haul waste. But budget cuts and battles such as the one taking place on the Upper East Side, home to one of the city's lowest asthma rates, have delayed progress.
"I'm frustrated that our neighborhood continues to be a dumping ground," added Karen Leader, a resident of North Brooklyn. Two of Leader's five grandchildren suffer from asthma. "I know garbage has to go somewhere, but let everyone take their fair share. We're overburdened."