‘A real matter of life or death’: How COVID-19 has renewed focus on push to change S.I. car culture
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A noxious concoction of harmful pollutants lines Staten Island’s main highway — an artery of black carbon and nitric oxide — that serves as a center point of dangerous pollutants that threaten borough residents’ lung health.
Other harmful toxins emit from facilities just over the Arthur Kill in New Jersey, and the state of the borough’s air quality has been considered a pivotal antecedent to a coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that exacerbated underlying lung issues.
Multiple environmental advocates interviewed by the Advance/SILive.com expressed the need for stricter regulations and policies to decrease pollution in New York City and Staten Island, specifically tied to car emissions that plague the air above the borough with ozone and other pollutants.
Jess Scicchigno, a New Dorp Beach resident with asthma and a condition called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), is one of the Island’s residents affected by high pollution levels.
“I pay attention to the ozone,” said Scicchigno. “I will notice a visible difference. When it’s lower, I’ll notice my lungs are better.”
Mast cells are responsible in the body for immediate allergic reactions, and MCAS is a syndrome where a person experiences symptoms akin to anaphylaxis due to a variety of triggers — including pollution.
For Scicchigno, air pollution worsens her asthma and MCAS, and the coronavirus outbreak has given her considerable reason for concern — compounding worries surrounding her lung health.
“I have no idea how I would react if I got COVID,” she said.
Studies have recently discussed the possibility that COVID-19 inflammation caused by cytokine storms — a grim hallmark of the disease that involves the infection prompting the immune system to flood the bloodstream with inflammatory proteins called cytokines, potentially killing tissue and damaging organs — could be rooted in MCAS.
However, definitive evidence of how mast cells are affected by the virus is emphasized, leaving Scicchigno with more worry than answers while infection still remains a significant possibility on the borough.
“Pollution makes my asthma worse, it probably makes my mast cell worse because it’s just more things it can react to,” said Scicchigno. “But then, say you get COVID — that’s going to make that outcome worse.”
UNDERLYING CONDITIONS AND COVID
Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, said that underlying lung conditions like asthma could leave people at an increased risk for worse COVID-19 outcomes, adding that car emissions serve as a contributor to the condition.
“Asthma, by definition, means it overreacts to something like a piece of dust, seasonal allergies, or even infections,” said Galiatsatos. “Patients with asthma, knowing that they’re predisposed to have their lungs overreact in a manner that causes significant symptoms — that sets them up for worse outcomes when they get the virus that causes COVID-19.”
Other conditions, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), weaken the immune system and leave patients more vulnerable to a COVID-19 infection.
There are “tons of studies that showcase car emissions are a big contributor to asthma,” Galiatsatos said.
By limiting these emissions, underlying conditions would also decrease at a correlating level, he suggested.
The passing of the Clean Air Act in 1963, Galiatsatos referenced, dropped asthma rates in major cities like Los Angeles by “more than 50%” — drawing a direct correlation between local pollution and these types of conditions.
Still, “asthma is more prevalent in urban communities … like Staten Island,” where a dependency on cars is greater, he said.
City Health Department data collected between 2008 and 2018 showed concentrations of black carbon, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide along the Staten Island Expressway and the city’s main highways.
Nitrogen is released from cars during fuel combustion and mixes with oxygen to become nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide — two gases that contribute to air pollution and can inflame airways.
Additionally, fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, considered the most harmful air pollutant, is also most-concentrated from car traffic on the borough’s main highway, 2016 data showed.
PM2.5 levels are more prevalent in high-poverty neighborhoods compared to low-poverty neighborhoods, according to the data, with Staten Island’s North Shore — where underlying conditions are more common and health care inadequacies are more pronounced — bearing the worst pollution burden on the Island.
While the levels of those pollutants have dropped considerably in recent years, average summer ozone remains a persistent issue on Staten Island.
Staten Island’s ozone pollution is consistently given an “F” rating by the American Lung Association’s (ALA) “State of the Air report,” and the high ozone days create unequal health risks for borough residents with underlying lung conditions.
A PUSH FOR CLEANER AIR
Environmental advocates said they are in support of stricter standards to aid public health — beginning with a push to make transportation, a leading cause of local air pollution, better for the lungs of city residents.
“The fight against climate change is also a fight to improve public health,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV), in an emailed statement to the Advance/SILive.com.
“That’s why NYLCV is prioritizing reducing pollution from transportation — the leading source of both greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution in New York,” said Tighe. “COVID has shown the drastic effects that pollution can have on our health, including higher mortality rates and lower quality of life.”
“We need to implement policies that will decrease pollution and encourage low-emission forms of transportation like better buses, improved micromobility, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure on Staten Island and throughout New York,” added Tighe.
Councilman Joe Borelli (R-South Shore), a former member of the State Assembly’s Energy Committee, said he supports electrifying the city’s bus fleet and school buses “in a phased approach” and also suggested that Staten Island needed more micromobility options.
However, he also said some of the city’s climate goals are too ambitious to be met in time.
“We have to be cognizant of the realities of procurement, and how much we can do,” said Borelli, referencing an effort to move the city’s buses to electrically-powered.
To get cars off of Staten Island roads — where drivers are exposed to long commutes that could expose them to harmful carcinogens — Borelli said that having dependable smaller and readily-available micromobility options would be a strong starting point.
Micromobility options include things like low-speed, shared scooters and bikes used for short distances.
“I wish they were more prolific on Staten Island and elsewhere in the city because someone like me who lives exactly one mile from the Annadale train station and does take the train to City Hall, I am the target,” said Borelli.
“Maybe I’m not using it in the winter months,” he added, “but say there’s eight months of good season where you’re taking one car off the road.”
AN EDUCATION BARRIER
Ground-level ozone, known as “bad ozone,” can trigger asthma attacks and death.
Over a long period of time, that exposure can cause long term damage to people’s lungs, said Kenneth Mendez, CEO and president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Similarly to effects experienced by people with “long-COVID” — or individuals who have symptoms triggered by the disease that could last months — that ozone can reduce lung function and make it “more difficult … to breathe deeply,” Mendez added.
However, to the ire of environmentalists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) retained its existing Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards late last year, forgoing an opportunity to restrict ozone levels from the current standard of 70 parts-per-billion.
The decision, made in the final weeks of the Trump Administration, came under fire.
An EPA spokesperson said the agency “will follow the science and law in accordance with the Biden-Harris Administration’s executive orders and other directives in reviewing all of the agency’s actions issued under the previous administration to ensure that they protect public health and the environment, tackle the climate crisis and air pollution, advance environmental justice, restore science, and build back better.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if or when the ozone standards would be toughened.
Sarah Blas, the head of the equity and community impact at the Child Wellness Initiative and the founder and executive director of Staten Island Therapeutic Gardens, said a major hurdle in the effort to bring the battle for lung health into the light is education.
“I think if you ask a mother of an asthmatic child who has difficulty breathing every day, what is the urgency, she would say it’s something that should have been done years ago,” said Blas, who added that those who don’t think about pollution would need to be educated on the need for fundamental changes — especially regarding transportation on Staten Island.
“I think there’s a lot of education that needs to happen on why this is so important and how it really affects our neighbors and other community members,” said Blas.
In addition to making borough residents aware of pollution issues caused primarily by car emissions, Blas echoed the sentiments of advocates across the city in stressing the need for infrastructure that helps diminish the culture of car ownership on Staten Island.
Micromobility options have previously been piloted on Staten Island, and others are on the way, but a fixed and dependable chain of options have not yet become practical for many of the Island’s residents who need to drive to navigate the borough.
“When you don’t have that infrastructure change, you can’t have more people biking and more people using less vehicles because that infrastructure just really isn’t there,” she said. “It just continues to promote that car culture that we see on Staten Island.”
Diversifying the Island’s transportation infrastructure to reliably enable residents to ditch cars for travel is something that advocates now say is not only a logistical concern, but a health one.
“When we advocate for bus lanes and bike lanes, we aren’t just fighting for quicker, safer commutes — we are also advocating for a healthier future for Staten Island,” said Rose Uscianowski, a Staten Island organizer for Transportation Alternatives.
“As this pollution rating proves, the lack of transit options in our borough is a real matter of life or death,” she said, “and we cannot accept this status quo.”