HomeInvestigationThe invisible hazard afflicting thousands of schools

The invisible hazard afflicting thousands of schools

She and her 10-year-old son, Tíyonn, both have asthma. She sleeps with her rescue inhaler under her pillow. Tíyonn needs medication to keep his lungs working properly and struggles with congestion. He feels safer inside, figuring the air is better, but he’s never far from the trucks.

They rumble past Hawkins Street School, the elementary/middle school he attends — an estimated 585 trucks a day on a two-lane road, along with roughly 11,000 other vehicles. They idle, like the truck outside school as Tíyonn left that day in December, pumping out gray smoke he could smell. Airplanes headed to the nearby Newark Liberty International Airport fly low over his school every couple of minutes, adding more pollution and noise.

“It’s so bad,” Tíyonn said, “I feel like we should have moved.”

Some in this working-class community with a mix of narrow, modest homes and public housing can’t afford to do that. Some don’t want to be driven out of a place they love, where many speak more than one language and the crime rate ranks among the lowest of Newark’s neighborhoods.

Kim Gaddy, a Newark school board member and environmental-justice organizer, thinks too many kids and adults in the city are exposed to unhealthy levels of traffic pollution, particularly in the Ironbound and in the South Ward neighborhoods that are also close to the port. Gaddy, a South Ward resident, has asthma and so do all three of her children. No one appears to track child asthma rates in Newark, but the best guess — the one repeated by officials — is that one in four children in the city has it. The asthma hospitalization rate for all ages, something New Jersey does track, was nearly three times higher in Newark than in the rest of the state in 2015.

“We have to look at this as a health injustice,” Gaddy said. “Our children, their life is on the line because we can’t escape the diesel.”

Driving around her neighborhood recently, pointing out the trucks and truck-intensive businesses, she paused outside the B.R.I.C.K. Peshine Academy school. Students were outside for recess, playing in the biting cold. Across the street and down a hill was Interstate 78, where roughly 160,000 vehicles, including more than 11,000 trucks, pass by every day.

The hill is good: The EPA has found that below-grade roads reduce the impact of traffic pollution nearby. (Hawkins Street School has no such luck, and its road is even closer, with a traffic light that guarantees pollution spikes from acceleration.) But the number of trucks on I-78 is unusually high.

All told, about 40 public schools in Newark — roughly 40 percent — are within 500 feet of a busy road.

John M. Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, has no doubt that proximity is unhealthy. He moved his family from the Ironbound to a Newark suburb in 1997 after his daughter developed asthma, and her symptoms quickly cleared up. But he says no one should expect the school district to find the money for high-grade air filters.

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen here,” he said. “They don’t have $75 for a water filter to keep lead out of the students’ drinking water.”

The Newark school district said its schools do have air filters and change them regularly, but they’re run-of-the-mill, regardless of whether a pollution source is nearby. That meets state requirements, schools spokesman Paul Nedeau wrote in an email. But this is a city that has long struggled with pollution, he said, and the district is eager to work with partners to improve conditions in and around its schools.

Among the most active local groups on pollution issues is the nonprofit Ironbound Community Corp., which thinks schools and residents shouldn’t have to pay for the air-quality problems they didn’t create. For more than a decade, ICC staffers and volunteers have called on the Port of New York and New Jersey — the destination for 9,000 trucks a day — to do more.

About 62 percent of the trucks that go to and from the port predate the stricter 2007 engine standards. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said in 2010 that it would bar those trucks in January 2017, but last year it weakened the plan. Old trucks not already serving the port are prohibited, but a ban affecting the current stock won’t kick in until next year — and only on trucks from 1995 or earlier.

Molly Campbell, director of port commerce for the authority, blamed it on lack of funding. The authority doesn’t have the money to assist all the people with older trucks, she said, many of whom are one-man independent contractors.

That sounds like a cop-out to Ana Baptista, an assistant professor at the New School in New York and a Hawkins Street graduate who previously led environmental-justice efforts at the ICC. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California — the only two larger than New York’s and New Jersey’s — banned pre-2007 trucks five years ago, cutting their diesel particle pollution more than 80 percent. Those ports also set aside funds for air filtration in schools, something the New York and New Jersey port said it has not done.

Campbell, who came from the Los Angeles port, points out that California ultimately required all older diesel trucks, not just those bound for ports, to get anti-pollution retrofits or get off the road. It’s the only state to do so, and she thinks that makes more sense than demanding that one employer do better.

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