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Upper East Side Air Quality Worse Than South Bronx, Stats Show

 The UES has higher concentrations of many pollutants than neighborhoods known for poor air quality.
Upper East Side Air Quality
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UPPER EAST SIDE — Air quality is worse on the Upper East Side than in areas known for high levels of air pollution in the outer boroughs — prompting community leaders to seek solutions as traffic is expected to increase in the neighborhood. 

Since 2011, the city has taken steps to reduce air pollution, leading to significant improvements in many neighborhoods. However, air quality on the Upper East Side has remained poor, according to data from the city’s Health Department.

Looking at the average concentration levels for 2009 to 2010, the most recent data available, seven of the eight pollutants the city studied were found in higher concentrations on the Upper East Side than in the South Bronx, East Harlem and parts of southern Brooklyn.

“I think the idea is ultimately to set up increased monitoring in our area to track the issue more closely and find out things like if it’s worse on a particular day and why,” Community Board 8 chairman Nick Viest said.

The board is planning to ask officials from the Health Department to attend its July meeting and discuss the problem.

As a part of the broader sustainability initiative PlaNYC, the Health Department has measured pollutants including ozone, fine particulates and carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde at more than 100 locations citywide.

The average concentration of fine particulates on the Upper East Side from 2009 to 2010 was 12.7, the data shows. By comparison, the same pollutant was measured at a 10.9 concentration level in Hunts Point-Mott Haven in the South Bronx, 10.6 in East Harlem and 9.5 in Coney Island.

According to the EPA, fine particulates— produced by vehicle exhaust and certain types of heating oil — can cause aggravated asthma symptoms, decreased lung function and irregular heart beat.

Viest said these substances were of particular concern, in light of a controversial waste transfer station set be built on East 91st Street.

“When you’re going to be bringing a lot more trucks into the area, there is concern about the diesel and how that will impact air quality,” he said. 

The Upper East Side also had higher-than-average levels of benzene and formaldehyde, known carcinogens that are classified as hazardous air pollutants. In 2005, the most recent year in which data is publicly available, the Upper East Side had a concentration level of 4.5 for both substances. By comparison, East Harlem had slightly lower levels of both pollutants, at 4.2 for each, while Hunts Point-Mott Haven came in at 2.8 for benzene and 3.5 for formaldehyde. Coney Island had levels around 2.5 for each.

The Health Department did not respond to requests for updated data.

The only area in which the Upper East Side fared better than average was for its ozone level, with its ozone concentration at 23 and the citywide average at 27. Ozone can have serious effects on asthma and other respiratory conditions.

State Assemblyman Dan Quart noted that many buildings in the neighborhood have not yet made the mandatory switch to cleaner-burning heating oils, and he has introduced legislation aimed at securing $15 million in the state budget to help buildings convert.

“It is a significant problem for people in my district and I think that the city data reflects that,” he said.

Despite the Upper East Side's poor ranking, the number of emergency room visits for asthma related to fine particulates for both children and adults were lower there than the citywide average from 2009 to 2011, the Health Department noted.

According to the department, this discrepancy is due to the fact that certain health conditions are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods.

“Disadvantaged neighborhoods have relatively high burdens of health problems like asthma and emphysema, which are exacerbated by air pollution, so a given amount of pollution will cause more of a health impact,” a department spokesman said by email. “This means the most vulnerable New Yorkers have the most to gain from efforts to reduce emissions citywide.”