Swati Prakash, West Harlem Environmental Action
Tuesday, 2 Oct 2001
NEW YORK, N.Y.
9 a.m. Today’s thought of the morning is: “There’s no way there are enough hours in the day.” As I get into the office and look at my long list of “current activities,” I take a deep breath and tell myself “Yes, I can do this.” But it’s always good to ask for a hand. After all, I remind myself, that is a key element of our community-based research model for combating environmental racism — leveraging scientific and other academic tools to promote environmental health and justice in communities of color.
Yesterday afternoon as I sent out emails and made phone calls about environmental sampling and health issues in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster, there was a knock at the office door. A law student from a local university came in and asked if she could have some information about our organization. Drop-ins like this are common, although they are usually from community residents or area employees. It’s one of the great aspects of being located right in the middle of the community.
Photo: WE ACT.
This student is from a community-organizing law clinic at her school. “Good,” I think. It’s always helpful to have access to legal resources, particularly from people who are sensitive to the complexities of using the law as a tool in broader community organizing efforts. I give her our brochure and a quick summary of some of our local organizing and community outreach efforts. One of the initiatives I tell her about is a tenants’ association in East Harlem that wants to get a Department of Sanitation garbage truck depot out of its backyard. The association came to us for assistance, and we are currently helping to organize a community forum. Scheduled for later this month, the forum will discuss asthma, air quality, and the impact of the diesel-producing garbage trucks. In addition to approaching us, the association asked public interest lawyers to assist with the case.
I am happy to hear that my student visitor is with a law clinic that focuses specifically on community organizing, and I’m curious to meet her professor. I’m very interested in how the law can be used as a tool to supplement broader community organizing efforts on health, environmental, and housing issues. It’s important that these legal approaches do just that — enhance community organizing efforts rather than overriding or replacing them. If legal tactics are the only tools a community has and they fail, what’s left is disappointment and disempowerment.
Later in the day, I get on the phone with Patrick Kinney, an air pollution scientist at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in the Department of Environmental Health. Columbia is our university partner on several community-based research projects. Last year, WE ACT, Columbia, and the University of Southern California were jointly awarded a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to develop and teach an air-pollution curriculum focusing on pollution from traffic, particularly diesel-powered vehicles. The curriculum includes the use of a portable device for measuring fine particulates in the air — particles whose diameters are less than 2.5 micrometers, a millionth of a meter. (For comparison, a human hair is roughly 100 micrometers, or microns.) This curriculum complements the efforts of our four-year-old diesel campaign, “If You Live Uptown, Breathe At Your Own Risk,” designed to alleviate the disproportionate use of diesel vehicles in northern Manhattan.
I call Dr. Kinney to ask if he’ll speak at the East Harlem community forum on the health effects of diesel-powered garbage trucks. He agrees. We discuss the relative merits of portable devices that take real-time measurements of airborne fine particulate counts versus those that read the mass concentration of fine particulates. In other words: Do we want to know how many fine particles are in a standard volume of air, or do we want to know the combined weight of fine particles in that air?
Health-based standards, including the U.S. EPA’s new National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particles, are given in terms of mass concentration, read as “micrograms per cubic meter” (a microgram is a millionth of a gram). However, diesel exhaust consists mostly of really tiny particles, called ultrafines, which have diameters of less than 0.1 micron. Ultrafines are so small they hardly weigh anything, so Dr. Kinney and I decide that it’s probably better to count the particulates rather than trying to measure their mass. Still, we decide to hold off on purchasing the equipment until he talks to other scientists who have used both instruments and until I talk to colleagues about the potential policy-related benefits of measuring fine particulate mass.
Today, I focus on writing the preface to a supplemental issue of Environmental Health Perspectives on the theme of “Using Community-Based Participatory Research to Advance Environmental Justice.” This year, WE ACT submitted a successful proposal to EHP to serve as guest editor of this supplemental issue, in partnership with Mary Northridge of the Harlem Health Promotion Center at Columbia University.
Serving as guest editor meant compiling research articles and commentaries from not only environmental health scientists, but also environmental justice advocates. It meant featuring community-driven environmental health research conducted in low-income communities and communities of color by people who literally live and breathe environmental hazards. We submitted a compilation of such articles to the editors of the magazine in August, and now we have to finish co-writing the preface to the issue. The anticipated publication date is April 2002. This monograph represents a great opportunity to communicate to environmental health scientists the importance of conducting community-based participatory research (CBPR), a model rooted physically and conceptually in the community. CBPR is driven by the principle that community residents formulate research questions, play a key role in collecting and analyzing data, and are central in helping to translate research outcomes into health improvements. As I edit the preface, a piece that four of us have been collaboratively writing, I make a mental note that we still have to find a nice cover photo representative of the environmental justice issues addressed in this monograph.
12:00. Time to join a national conference call of the Coming Clean Campaign, a coalition of activists from around the country working to challenge the chemical industry to clean up its act. We got involved with the campaign through our work educating the community about the hazardous effects of pesticides and about less toxic alternatives. Working with broader coalitions such as this is invaluable because it enables us to have a more significant impact on national policy. ‘ It’s also one of those activities that, at least for me, easily falls through the cracks in the rush to deal with all our local issues, so I’m excited to be taking part in the conference call today. … I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.