Op-Ed | Air quality has already been an issue in the Bronx for decades

An orange glow cloaks a smoky haze in Brooklyn on Thursday, June 8, 2023.
An orange glow cloaks a smoky haze in Brooklyn on Thursday, June 8, 2023.
Photo Camille Botello

For the past few summers, Bronx residents have felt the heat. From swelteringly high heat indexes to severe flooding, it has been an extreme summer. And it’s only going to get worse. According to the Heath Vulnerability Index, most Bronxites face the highest level of risk, which takes into account temperature, air conditioning and green space access as well as the percentage of Black, Latinx and low-income residents in a particular neighborhood.

Our borough is a prime example of what we mean when we say that communities of color, and low-income communities, will be on the frontlines of climate change.

Yet in less than a month, only a few miles south of these communities, President Biden will gather world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly to discuss international public policy to stop our climate crisis. But while they discuss the global impact of the climate crisis, what working people are experiencing cannot be overlooked.

That’s why I’m rallying my community to join the March to End Fossil Fuels on Sept. 17 to demand that President Biden takes this crisis seriously and declares a climate emergency. I refuse to accept that extreme heat, severe flooding and deteriorating air quality are something that low-income communities and communities of color just have to learn to deal with.

As a construction worker from the Bronx, not only have I had to work through extreme heat, my coworkers and I are increasingly concerned about poor air quality on the job. Many jobs that work in the elements are hyper-exposed to airborne toxins and construction workers are no exception. The forest fires in Ontario, Canada, exacerbated poor air quality issues as we’ve experienced more days indicated as “unhealthy” under the air quality index– concerning for workers and their families.

Meanwhile, in Bronx neighborhoods, we have seen a steady progression of disappearing green spaces. Our borough has little protection from the extreme heat, which has caused more and more blackouts and skyrocketing energy bills, putting our low income residents most at risk and having to make trade offs between buying groceries and paying energy bills.

While this summer’s orange skies uplifted concerns about air quality across our city, the reality is that Bronx residents have been suffering from poor air quality for generations, particularly in the areas surrounding the Cross Bronx Expressway. Our neighbors that border the expressway have experienced incredibly high rates of diabetes, obesity and asthma. This is a crisis we’re already living with. And as extreme heat drives up the frequency and magnitude of wildfire smoke leaching into our air, this is only expected to worsen.

In order to stand behind working Americans, here in New York City and across the country, President Biden must roll back fossil fuel projects, proactively invest in FEMA to save thousands of lives, and declare a climate emergency. Bronxites cannot wait another year. We’re calling for immediate, drastic action to protect the health of our most vulnerable communities.

Oswaldo Mendoza is a construction worker and member of New York Communities for Change.

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