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Originally appeared in Artvoice on September 20th, 2012

Coinciding with the commencement of an air monitoring program at the Peace Bridge last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo came out with a “white paper” on Peace Bridge air quality and asthma issues relating to the Peace Bridge.

Among the white paper revelations, “previously conducted air monitoring at the Peace Bridge between 2001-2002 and 2005-2006 already demonstrates that local air quality has improved.” Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa, who was the prime mover in both the 2001-2002 and 2005-2006 studies, told Artvoice he strongly disagreed with that interpretation of the data. He said there was no evidence for that claim.

The white paper went on to state that “regional air quality, and specifically air quality in the vicinity of the Peace Bridge, will only continue to improve due to enhanced heavy-duty engine standards.” Apparently, the governor has a crystal ball that allows him see into the future. (Possibly even to 2016.)

New data is good, so bully for the air monitoring program, which was long since proposed but languished on a shelf somewhere in Albany until Assemblyman Sean Ryan got it fast-tracked.

But the problem with this testing program is that it may not reveal very much of interest. The current testing is for fine particles, in the lower micrometer range, plus sulfur and black carbon. One testing site is upwind and one is downwind of the Peace Bridge plaza. But the culprit in asthma—this is epidemiologist Dr. Lwebuga-Mukasa’s thinking after a lifetime of study of asthma—is not fine but ultrafine particles, in the nanometer range, 1,000 times smaller than the particles that will be detected in the present monitoring.

The previous testing was for fine and ultrafine particles as well as numerous other parameters, including multiple volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and nitrogenated PAHs (NPAHs), the laundry lists of which include many recognized carcinogens. Ultrafine particles were substantially higher downwind as compared to upwind, whereas fine particle data (broken down by elements) varied considerably among the different sampling sites, and so was less telling, though for six of 28 elements, concentrations were higher downwind than upwind, which result was attributed to Peace Bridge plaza traffic. VOC and PAH data was less telling also, but some NPAHs were notably higher downwind than upwind, which result was also attributed to bridge plaza traffic.

The overall picture is complex. Other factors than bridge-related emissions may be and likely are relevant to the high asthma numbers in the Peace Bridge area. For some unknown reason, asthma disproportionately attacks people of Puerto Rican descent. And not surprisingly, poverty is an associated factor. Dr. Lwebuga-Mukasa has even considered ethnic cooking practices—gas and electric stoves and ovens in operation emit ultrafine particles—and has hypothesized that long-hour operation of kitchen cooking apparatus, especially in poorly ventilated areas, is a factor in asthma incidence.

But not a sole source for the malady. “These things are additive,” he says, “the outdoor burden, plus the indoor. Why add any burden, from any source, to the problem?”

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