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19th June
2007

First Published by The New York Sun, June 19, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

Mayor Bloomberg, in proposing congestion pricing for Manhattan’s business district, is using the argument that his initiative, by reducing air pollution, will cut the rate of asthma in our children. Sounds good, but the problem is that there is no science behind Dr. Bloomberg’s latest prescription.

The mayor writes, “Improving air quality is important to all New Yorkers because in many parts of our city, air pollution is contributing to an increased rate of asthma-related hospitalizations. In fact, in areas like the South Bronx, parts of Brooklyn, and Northern Manhattan — children are hospitalized for asthma at four times the national rate.”

The mayor is right that one of the indicators of the urban pathology afflicting poor areas most often cited is the high asthma rate, particularly among children. There is no doubt that the incidence of asthma has been steadily increasing. He reprises the conventional wisdom that links the rising prevalence of the condition to air pollution.

On the surface, the link between air pollution and asthma seems reasonable and has been widely accepted as such by politicians and the general public. The trouble is that the evidence for such a linkage doesn’t exist.

If there were a relationship between the asthma rate and air pollution, one would expect that the air has gotten much worse as the number of asthma cases grew. But that is not the case. While few would say that the air quality is pristine, experts agree that the city’s air quality has dramatically improved in the past quarter century, even as the asthma rate skyrocketed. If anything, the incidence of asthma should be declining.

After all, if the argument were true, one of the worst areas for asthma in the city would be the Upper East Side, the area that the mayor calls home, one of the most congested neighborhoods. If one buys the asthma myth, persons living in the apartments that seem to hang over the FDR Drive should be given inhalers upon signing their pricey leases.

So entrenched is the fiction that pollution produced by business causes asthma that when scientific research was presented a decade ago questioning the fiction, the eco-fundamentalists denounced the scientists.

The study appeared in May 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was written by Dr. David Rosenstreich of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, ironically just a few miles north of the South Bronx. In a study of seven urban areas, including the South Bronx, Dr. Rosenstreich found that roach saliva and droppings may be behind the allergic reactions that lead to asthma.

This enraged activists who couldn’t accept that perhaps it wasn’t the evil capitalists behind industry and commerce that was sickening the residents, but possibly the housekeeping practices of the residents themselves.

That hasn’t stopped eco-fundamentalists from using “junk science” as the leading argument to stop needed development and job creation in impoverished areas. Now the mayor is using the asthma mythology to justify congestion pricing.

Much of the rationale behind the opposition to the new Yankee Stadium was based on the asthma argument. Writing in the Westchester Journal News, columnist Phil Resiman opined, “Going there is one thing. Living near the fabled ballpark is quite another. During the baseball months, the South Bronx neighborhood is a congested traffic nightmare, a hot zone of carbon-monoxide exhaust and a breeding ground for chronic respiratory ailments. ‘Asthma Alley,’ they call it.”

That kind of argument failed against the Yanks, though the team was still forced to sweeten the pot for the local politicos who approved the project only after agreeing to a “community benefits agreement” that puts $800,000 a year into a politician-controlled slush fund.

Eco-fundamentalists have used the asthma argument to attempt to close and demolish the Sheridan Expressway, which links the Hunts Point industrial areas with the Cross Bronx Expressway. Rather than figure out ways to exploit a transportation asset that could enhance business prospects in the poverty stricken neighborhood, activists are lobbying hard for its conversion to parkland.

By buying into similar arguments, the mayor undermines his own initiatives. Congestion pricing is worth discussing, but not as a method of cutting pollution. That problem can only be solved through technology, which has already dramatically reduced pollution in Gotham.

In 10 years many more vehicles entering Manhattan will be powered by low polluting hybrid engines, cutting the pollution rate further. If history and science are guides, the asthma rate will be unaffected.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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