Swati Prakash is environmental health director for West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), a nonprofit, grassroots organization working to improve environmental quality and to secure environmental justice in predominately African-American and Latino communities.

Monday, 1 Oct 2001

NEW YORK, N.Y.

Monday morning. My first thought as I go through my morning ritual is, “Will this week see New York returned to ‘normal’ (whatever that means)?” It’s been almost three weeks and from my perspective, living and working all the way uptown, life has been slowly settling back into a slightly awkward version of “before.”

I live in West Harlem, at the northern end of Manhattan. I take the bus to work in the morning, past one of the six diesel bus depots located in northern Manhattan and within two blocks of another one of those depots. My morning commute also takes me past smaller diesel bus and truck depots, the North River Sewage Treatment Facility, and several dozen auto body shops, dry cleaners, and other chemical-intensive small businesses. It is also a ride through one of the most vibrant and culturally rich communities I have ever lived in. I pass several public schools, including the former Harlem School of the Performing Arts, the City College of New York, a community swimming pool, multiple day-care centers, several tiny parks and backyard gardens, and four high-density public-housing developments. The bus cruises along block after block of beautiful old brownstone apartment buildings. Like many lower-income urban communities of color, this is a community of contrasts, where some of our most valued and vulnerable assets exist side-by-side with sources of pollution.

Our office is located almost adjacent to the Apollo Theater (rumored to be the most frequently visited tourist attraction in the city of New York) on 125th Street, a historic and bustling retail thoroughfare.

Sitting at work today, I’m thinking about how and when we are going to reschedule our national conference on “Human Genetics, Environment, and Communities of Color: Ethical and Social Implications,” which was originally slated to take place here in New York City shortly after the terrorist attacks. On the Friday after the World Trade Center was destroyed, we had to make the difficult decision to postpone our conference; now it’s time for me to set the new date.

I have been planning this conference since this time last year. How does an environmental justice organization come to organize a national conference on genetics and communities of color? We initially approached the issue through our experience with conducting and promoting research on environmental health concerns in communities of color. Environmental health researchers are increasingly investing resources into understanding the genetic basis for vulnerabilities to environmental toxins, in the belief that this knowledge could lead to the development of improvements in environmental health. At the same time, some environmental and health advocates have expressed concern that growing attention to the genetic factors could divert attention and resources away from efforts to reduce exposure to toxins. Another concern is that this research could subtly shift the perception of who is responsible for environmental health problems from polluters to the individuals living in polluted environments.

The idea for the conference came about last year when we realized that genetics research is likely to affect the work we do as environmentalists and as people of color. It seems important that environmental justice activists have at least a working understanding of the state and nature of research in the field of genetics, and that we have some forum for expressing ethical and social concerns. Now the conference will have to wait until some time in March.

11 a.m.: My phone rings. “I need help,” says a woman who identifies herself as the parent of a child in a public elementary school located a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. She tells me that although the school remains closed, there is talk of sending the children back in a few weeks. She is concerned because independent tests conducted by a contractor near the school have found high levels of asbestos (2 to 3 percent) in dust — still more data to add to the environmental puzzle emerging from the WTC disaster. I know the U.S. EPA has been monitoring air and dust for asbestos, and reassuring the public that the levels it has found are safe. There are also on-going clean-up efforts, including 10 giant HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter vacuum trucks that have been brought in to clean up sidewalks and streets in the vicinity.

Yet this is not the first concerned person who has called me to ask if I know “what’s really going on.” I wish I knew more about what is really going on. EPA samples taken shortly after the disaster showed elevated levels of dioxin, lead, and chromium in the air. The results of more recent samples are not yet available. I’ve heard that environmental scientists from nearby universities have taken their own samples, but I know nothing of their results. In the frantic rush first to deal with the acute crisis and now to clean up the site, environmental health concerns were placed on the back burner. However, as New Yorkers attempt to return to “life as normal,” these concerns are starting to emerge. There is unmistakably something in the air still; when you walk around the downtown blocks nearest to the site (as I did over the weekend), you still catch the smell of burning metal and rubber. The questions to be answered are: Exactly what is in the air and in the dust that continues to settle to the ground, and how much of it is there? I feel challenged to find my place in assessing and evaluating actual public health risks from my community base three miles away in Harlem.

Meanwhile, the concerned mother on the phone is waiting for a response from me. She doesn’t want her child sent back to the school in a few weeks if there is still a health threat, and asks if we can help her organize to ensure that the school is truly safe enough for the children to return. I share with her what I know about EPA’s cleanup efforts and monitoring information, take her number and tell her I’ll get back to her. It is going to require some time and phone calls to track down and try to make sense of all the existing monitoring data and find out exactly what the long-term cleanup plans are for this area.