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Asthma Group Community Meeting

By Leon Tulton

By Leon Tulton
Photo was taken by Eric Moore.

U.S. Senator Clinton at JHS 45 with two characters from Respironics, Zoey (the blue car) and Light Buddy (the traffic light) The photo was taken by Eric Moore..Elected leaders, community residents, and experts from the health, housing, and realty professions gathered Saturday, May 31, 2003, to discuss how housing-related problems in East Harlem can aggravate asthma in children, ways to resolve them, and information on purchasing a home for the first time to change their home environment.

Addressing the audience at Junior High School 45, New York City Councilmember Philip Reed, who represents City Council District 8 and co-sponsor of the event, stated that asthma continues to be a major problem in East Harlem. He explained that the purpose of the symposium was to raise awareness about asthma and how problems in and around the home can affect the quality of the community’s respiratory health. Reed said many residents do not realize that asthma is a preventable disease and stressed that education and more funding is the key to prevention.

U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, representing the 7th Congressional District, stated that residents have the power to take action on an individual level to reduce indoor triggers that can set off an asthma attack. The senator cited how environmental tobacco smoke from cigarettes in homes is an indoor trigger of asthma that residents can control. “We need to get people to stop smoking,” Clinton said. “It’s good for them and for the [respiratory health of their] children.” She also recommended that residents can organize themselves into an activist group to deal with asthma triggers in their community that they cannot individually control. She cited how the use of commercial pesticide in housing can affect asthmatic tenants who do not have a say in the use of the chemical. Clinton said that residents collectively can push for legislation to control the use of pesticide in homes. She also pledged to stand with the East Harlem community in its fight against asthma. “I will march with you. I will fight with you. And someday soon I hope we can say we have beaten asthma to save our children,” Clinton said followed by loud applause from the audience.

Physicians from two East Harlem health institutions discussed the environmental causes of asthma and the effect of the disease on children and their families. Philip Landrigan, M.D., a pediatrician at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, explained that childhood asthma is aggravated by indoor air pollution such as cockroach droppings, fumes from gas stoves, and mold. He also added that outdoor air pollution that invades the home is another trigger of asthma. Landrigan cited how unfair transportation policies in the community disproportionately expose residents to diesel exhaust from buses, a possible contributing factor to East Harlem’s unusual high asthma hospitalization rate. “It’s unconscionable that all but one bus depot that emit diesel exhaust are north of 96th Street,” the physician said regarding the high concentration of bus depots placed mostly in low-income communities of color by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state transportation agency. Mitch Rubin, M.D., a pediatrician from Metropolitan Hospital, spoke about the social effect of asthma on children and their families. According to a recent unpublished report from Metropolitan Hospital, one in five residents sampled has asthma. Rubin said that the respiratory disease can affect an asthmatic child’s quality of education and limit his or her play activities. Asthma is the number one cause of school absenteeism in New York City public schools. He added that parents of asthmatic children are affected financially by the disease. The physician said that parents lose time from work when they have to take their children to the hospital due to an asthma attack.

Representatives from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDOH), NYC Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and the Legal Aid Society spoke about the danger of mold in homes and the legal rights tenants have to resolve housing-related problems affecting their health. Chris D’Andrea of NYCDOH explained that mold thrives in excessive moist environments created from housing-related problems such as leaking pipes and poor ventilation of bathrooms. Mold is dangerous to respiratory health because it release microscopic spores that can invade the lungs and promote asthma-like symptoms in people, especially children. “Mold is not only a health issue, but also a housing issue,” D’Andrea said. Ray Powers, chief inspector of Manhattan’s code enforcement division at HPD, stated that his agency has been addressing the issue of mold since 1998. Powers added that problems with mold in homes are classified as a class-C violation, a health hazard that requires immediate intervention from either the landlord or HPD. Andrew Lehrer, a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society, told the audience that his organization offers free legal representation for tenant associations in Harlem, East Harlem, and Upper Manhattan. He suggested that tenants who complain to their landlords about housing problems should ensure that the complaint is written and sent by certified mail. Lehrer also said that tenants can push for housing repairs from their landlords by staging a rent strike (withholding the money for rent) or going to housing court in order to get a court order or court-appointed administrator to take over a dwelling.

The second half of the event focused on how East Harlem residents can purchase a home for the first time. When asked the reason for including information about purchasing a home at the conference, Delfina Cruz, vice chair of the East Harlem Asthma Working Group, a co-sponsor of the event, explained that the councilman and the other event co-sponsors wanted to inform East Harlem residents that purchasing a home is not as difficult as they may believe. “We not only want to educate the community about the ways they can fix housing-related problems that affect their health, but also show them that they have the power to change their entire indoor environment by moving to a place that they own,” Cruz said. Representatives from housing, banking, and realty professions told the audience about ways they can receive financial assistance in purchasing a home. David Jackson, assistant commissioner of HPD, explained that his agency provides a $10,000 grant to first-time homebuyers with an income at or below $78,920 for a family of three or more or $75,360 for a family of one or two. One of the requirements to receive the grant is potential buyers must purchase a home in one of HPD’s Homeownership Zones in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, or Staten Island. Gilroy Lino of Fleet Bank spoke of a similar financial program offered by his organization. He stated that his bank offers a $6,000 grant to first-time home buyers who purchase homes in low and moderate income communities. Maria Guillen of Banco Popular explained that her bank offers free pre-approval for those who are interested in purchasing a home. Pre-approval means a potential home buyer met with a loan officer, the person’s credit file has been reviewed and the bank believes that the person can readily qualify for a given loan amount with one or more specific mortgage programs. Based on information provided by the potential home buyer, the lender can provide a pre-approval letter which shows the person’s borrowing power. Although it is not a final loan commitment, the pre-approval letter can be shown to listing brokers when bidding on a home. The letter proves that a potential buyer has the ability to go through with a purchase. Yvette Foster, owner of Foster Homes Real Estate, advised the audience that they should view the property themselves and hire a home inspector to make sure there are no problems with their new home. “A home inspector can identify potential problems that may not be clearly identifiable to a first-time home buyer,” Foster said. “For example, a home inspector can identify the source of a mold problem that can cause asthma.”

Three East Harlem residents who attended the conference were interviewed earlier for this story. They explained that they came to the event to learn more about asthma and spoke about how the respiratory disease affected their families. An East Harlem resident who identified herself as Evelyn told me that she and her son were recently diagnosed with asthma two weeks ago. “I noticed that I started having problems breathing a year after I moved to East Harlem from Coney Island [in Brooklyn],” she said. Judy Glover, another East Harlem resident, said that she came to the symposium to learn how to deal with the mold issue in her home. Thereas Campos, an asthmatic and mother of two asthmatic children, explained that she hoped to learn how to deal with the problem of roach infestation in her apartment, a trigger of asthma. “I want to [learn how to fix] the housing problems that I believe is related to my asthma,” Campos said in Spanish. “I’m doing this for the sake of myself and my children.” Note: Special thanks to Margie Rodriguez for interpreting Ms. Campos’ statement

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