Waiting For Environmental Justice to Come

Environmental toxins and pollutants know no class or race, and yet government policies and corporate activities place an undue burden on the health of the poor and communities of color.
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Environmental toxins and pollutants know no class or race, and yet government policies and corporate activities place an undue burden on the health of the poor and communities of color.

Throughout the United States, children of color and poor children are disproportionately exposed to health hazards while attending public school, placing them at high risk. Often, this problem is unaddressed in urban centers. However, one group of New York City parents is bringing attention to polluted schools, holding elected officials accountable, and in the process, becoming a focal point in the environmental justice movement.

Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Public School 163 is a diverse elementary school consisting of children ranging from pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade. The student body is 46 percent Latino, 27 percent white, 17 percent African-American and 16 percent Asian-American. Over half of these youngsters (52 percent) qualify for free lunch.

The proposal by Jewish Home Lifecare to construct a 20-story nursing home tower next to the three-story P.S. 163 over the next few years raised red flags among parents, who collectively call themselves the Task Force for a Safe School (TFSS). TFSS is concerned the construction will bring toxic fumes, excessive noise and disruptive traffic, and negatively impact the development and learning environment of their children.

TFSS has called upon Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council to take a stand, with legislation to protect children from next door construction. Councilmembers Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal recently proposed such legislation. As for de Blasio, the circumstances are made to order. In contrast to his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration favored developers, de Blasio ran for office on a progressive agenda of protecting the underdog. With the P.S. 163 crisis, the new Mayor has an opportunity to show leadership in environmental justice.

This is not the first New York City school to seek protection from an environmental threat to children's health. For example, in 2011, students at P.S. 51 in Hell's Kitchen reportedly suffered from rashes, asthma and nosebleeds resulting from construction of a large residential development next to their school. Acceding to the parents' demands, officials moved P.S. 51 to the Upper East Side at a cost of millions of dollars.

In 2005, when a developer planned to build a 1.1 million sq. ft. residential project, including a 400 ft. condo tower near P.S. 234 in the tony Tribeca section of the city, a brokered deal ensured construction noise would be minimized through the use of sound barriers and alternative construction methods, and construction delays until after children completed their standardized testing. The $2.5 million "community friendly" noise reduction plan -- designed to minimize the impact on students and address the parents' environmental concerns -- was unprecedented.

Meanwhile, parents at P.S. 163 expect the same treatment for their youngsters. "Are my kids' lungs less precious than those of the kids in the Tribeca school?" asked Adina Berrios Brooks, co-chair of TFSS and whose child attends the school. "Shouldn't we protect all of our kids?"

Brooks noted that the P.S. 163 issue links environmental justice concerns to the national debate over charter schools and education reform. "This is a public school. Many of the children zoned for the school have no other options. They are told they cannot change out of that school," Brooks said, fearing the children could be exposed to toxic dust. Affluent parents would simply raise the necessary funds, or place their children in private schools to guarantee a safe learning environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."

A long legacy of environmental racism and injustice plagues the United States, with a history of housing segregation, discriminatory mortgage lending and land use policies setting the stage for toxic schools, according to Daria E. Neal of Lewis and Clark Law School. While blacks live in mixed-use communities -- including industrial, commercial and residential use -- whites tend to live in solely residential areas. Some schools in low-income, black and Latino communities are built near contaminated areas and pollution-generating plants.

Further, a 2006 AP study found that people of color are 79 percent more likely to live in areas with dangerous industrial pollution. In 19 states, the odds for African-Americans were double that of whites. The lower the average income, the higher the risk.

Children are exposed to poisonous substances such as pesticides, asbestos, mold and vermin while in school. Further, children breathe more rapidly and may inhale and absorb toxins more effectively than adults, impairing their development in the process, and leading to asthma, cancer, genetic mutations and other conditions.

According to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, asthma is most prevalent among Puerto Rican (18.4 percent), black (14.6 percent) and multiracial children (13.6 percent), as opposed to white children (8.2 percent). Among poor children, asthma disproportionately impacts Puerto Rican (23.3 percent), multiracial (21.1 percent) and African American children (15.8 percent) when compared to their white counterparts (10.1 percent).

According to the University of California, Los Angeles Civil Rights Project, New York State has the most segregated public schools, due especially to the school segregation of New York City. A "double segregation" based on race and class produces inequality, and intensifies the risk of children's exposure to health hazards, violence and other problems. Moreover, the predominantly black central Harlem has the nation's highest rate of asthma.

All children have a right to learn in a healthy, safe and quiet environment in order to thrive and become productive citizens. And yet, often their health is determined by their race, class, zip code and street address. This is why P.S. 163 is so important.

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