Asthma Complaints Followed East Harlem Blast
By Laura Kusisto
A nonprofit health group in East Harlem says a sharp increase in referrals to its asthma program in the wake of last spring’s gas explosion in the neighborhood is raising concerns that the blast hurt the respiratory health of some residents.
LSA Family Health Service said it received 52 referrals to its environmental health program between the beginning of March and the end of May, up from 17 in the three months between December and February and up 63% from the year-earlier period.
The group said the increase was due in large part to referrals for families who lived near the site of the deadly March 12 explosion and who had concerns about asthma, lead dust or pest control issues related to the explosion and its aftermath.
Of 22 families who were referred to the program, 11 had problems with asthma and four had other respiratory concerns.
The figures aren’t conclusive, and some experts think pre-existing housing conditions such as mold and cockroach problems are the more likely cause of the asthma complaints. At the same time, they illustrate the difficulty of pinpointing the precise cause of asthma in inner-city residents.
Experts said that it would be difficult to link the dust released by the explosion to asthma attacks in the area, which often involve a number of factors. Stress, they said, can also be linked to asthma attacks.
“That is a very tall order…to prove that there’s an association especially when something has so many factors,” said Perry Sheffield, an assistant professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in East Harlem.
The explosion leveled buildings and killed eight people. In the weeks after the blast, “We figured that we’d get some referrals, but I didn’t realize how many we would get,” said Ray Lopez, director of the environmental health and family asthma program for LSA Family Health. The group tapped the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York to help with post-blast health issues.
LSA Family Health representatives visited families referred to its respiratory health program to help clean residents’ apartments for dust and other asthma triggers after the explosion. Mr. Lopez said many of those affected were provided with cleaning supplies, but that many of the families were overwhelmed and hadn’t managed to clean their apartments.
With windows blown out by the blast, dust accumulated in many apartments, Mr. Lopez said. “It seemed like it was up to the families themselves to remove that dust,” Mr. Lopez said.
A spokesman for the city’s Housing Preservation and Development Department said his department and the Department of Environmental Protection performed air-quality testing for a week following the explosion.
He also said the owners of the buildings that were vacated after the explosion and have since been reoccupied have paid to have professional firms to clean public areas and individual units in the properties.
A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the Mayor’s Fund provided information to residents on how to access the American Red Cross’s free “Move-in Kits,” which contained liquid cleaning solution, rubber gloves, garbage bags, mops, masks, deodorizers and other cleaning supplies, as well as air purifiers.
The mayor’s spokesman said that residents who have questions about air or dust conditions related to the explosion should call 311. “If dust conditions remain in your home, [New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] will inspect those locations and, if necessary, order the building owner to clean,” he said.
Asthma rates in East Harlem are already among the highest in the city. But some experts say that it is difficult to measure whether there was a meaningful uptick in asthma and that the cases more likely are attributable to long-standing environmental issues in the community.
“More than anything else, it’s housing conditions,” said Bill Sothern, a certified industrial hygienist who lives on East 117th Street and Madison. He noted that apartments can have issues such as leaks that cause mold and cockroach infestations.
Sarah Borrero, 58 years old, said she and her 16-year-old daughter suffered from asthma before the explosion, but it grew worse for both of them after the blast leveled houses and sent dust flying in the neighborhood.
She said her daughter has been rushed to the emergency room twice for asthma since the blast and spent two days in intensive care during the first visit.
“I’ve never seen her have this kind of trouble; never in all of these years,” Ms. Borrero said.
The family is now living in the Bronx. Ms. Borrero said that the worsening of her daughter’s asthma symptoms appears to be linked to anxiety from the explosion.
Ms. Borrero said that on the first visit to the hospital, the staff asked if her daughter had been through any stress.
Her reply: “Have you got an hour?”
Write to Laura Kusisto at firstname.lastname@example.org