Clearing the Air in Chinatown

Asthma advocacy stems from resident-driven research

Chinatown, located in New York City’s Lower Manhattan, is the city’s oldest Chinese community. Since the late 1800s, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived from Guangzhou, a province in southeastern China, Chinatown has been a destination for new immigrants. According to 2000 Census figures, nearly 60 percent of Chinatown residents are foreign-born.

While rich in history, Chinatown is economically poor: thirty-one percent of residents live below the poverty level. The community is also plagued by environmental problems such as poor air quality. The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) was founded in 1977 to ally the different parts of our diverse community to address such issues. We envisioned an organization that ordinary people could join to improve the community's living and working conditions. Because many families lived in turn-of-thecentury tenements or public housing with substandard conditions, CPA first helped tenants to form associations and demand basic services like heat and hot water. Since then we have worked on a wide array of issues including immigrant rights, voter empowerment, housing and health, and worker rights.

In 1996, CPA learned that Chinatown had one of the highest levels of diesel pollution in the city. We also learned that communities exposed to high amounts of diesel particulates often had high rates of asthma. In 2001, when the World Trade Center collapsed, the air around Lower Manhattan was further contaminated. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered free testing of air in residential apartments south of Canal Street. This border, which was also used by agencies dispensing post-9/11 aid, included the wealthier residents living to the south of Chinatown, but excluded many in our community who were affected by asthma.

Health is a major concern to the Chinatown community. On street corners, residents line up at outreach tables to enroll in low-cost health insurance programs, and doctors’ offices in the neighborhood are often overcrowded. But Chinese immigrants do not have a tradition of environmental activism. We decided that health was the angle to use to raise community awareness about what was happening to our environment.

First, CPA informally asked some residents what they knew about asthma. We were surprised to find that people who had asthma never talked about it. It wasn’t perceived of as a problem. The only public statistics available were asthma hospitalization rates. After researching the environmental health research done by other communities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and northern Manhattan, we decide to conduct an asthma survey.

The Survey
CPA envisioned an asthma survey that would have multiple benefits. In addition to gathering information, we wanted to do education and outreach and involve many residents—everyone from parents and young people to senior citizens. We also wanted to involve community institutions such as churches, libraries, hospitals, and senior centers, and to develop new leaders.

CPA staff and volunteers developed the survey after studying a similar one done by El Puente, an environmental justice organization in Brooklyn. We also visited the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA) and talked to staff members there who gave us helpful information and advice both before and after our survey. Young people, especially high school and college students, played a big role during this stage. More than 30 multilingual volunteers (speaking several Chinese dialects as well as English) worked to develop and administer the survey, and later, to analyze results.

Since most Chinatown residents work long hours and spend much of their free time outside the home, we decided to reach residents in public places, such as parks, the library, hospitals and community centers. We also wanted to map our results, so we asked people where they lived and recorded that information on the survey sheet. We found that almost everyone we approached was very concerned about the environment and wanted to do something about it.

In Summer 2002, we released the results: one in five households (out of 580 households) reported having a person with asthma living there. We also found that more than half of those asthmatics were children, and 63 percent were diagnosed with asthma after moving to their current apartments. Through one of our members, we acquired and learned to use software to make a map showing the concentrations of people with asthma by zip code. We found that central Chinatown, an area with higher concentrations of traffic and commercial activity, also had a higher concentration of residents with asthma.

Our survey showed a snapshot of our community’s situation and served as an important tool for organizing efforts. During Asthma Awareness Month this May, we organized the first-ever asthma health fair in Chinatown, collaborating with a few other Chinatown groups. Several other asthma awareness events were organized with funding from the local health department. We also testified at public hearings about post-September-11 air quality and asthma in Chinatown. After a great deal of pressure from community residents and allies, the EPA announced that the borders for post-September 11 residential environmental testing would be expanded to include more low-income residents. Also, this past summer, a local youth group made a video about asthma with our information and assistance.

Research, Education, Organizing
In environmental justice struggles, anecdotes and experience are usually not enough to show powerful decision makers that a problem is serious. Numbers and data are often required and the asthma survey provided some of that evidence. However, community needs cannot be portrayed strictly through numbers, maps and pie charts. We need to show the human side and our voices must be heard. Currently, CPA is conducting a two-month Chinatown Environmental Health Leadership Training program through which a group of parents and other residents are learning about the environment and gaining public speaking and leadership skills. Word of this program has spread and members and staff from other organizations in our community want to participate.

Through our efforts, we learned a lot about different ways air quality affects our health. We learned that there are many different sources of air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, that still need to be addressed. We learned that our community has many concerns about the environment. To answer those concerns, we need to make sure that scientific research is driven by community and also combined with education and organizing. There is a lot of work to do in terms of advocacy, capacity building and developing new leaders. Everyone from different corners of the community must join together in the fight for a healthier environment.

Mae Lee is the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in New York.