Public Health and the Environment

Asthma and Obesity are two very important public health concerns in East Harlem.

Asthma is a serious, sometimes life-threatening chronic disorder that affects the quality of life for almost 25 million Americans. Symptoms include wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing. East Harlem’s asthma hospitalization rates have consistently been among the worst in the city for over a decade.

NYC Asthma Hospitalizations, 2010(age-adjusted, 15 and older), Source: NYCCHS

NYC Asthma Hospitalizations, 2010
(age-adjusted, 15 and older), Source: NYCCHS

An asthma attack can be triggered by both indoor and outdoor air pollutants. Although the air has been getting cleaner in the past several decades thanks to cleaner air standards, there is evidence that on days when pollutant levels fluctuate toward higher levels, there is an uptick in asthma attacks. The effect of trees on air pollution is currently being studied, and so far only modest improvements can be demonstrated. However, in combination with other benefits, such as cooling and shading, which can reduce power consumption and heat-related pollution (summer sunshine increases ozone formation), urban trees can be part of a viable strategy for cleaner air.

Obesity is defined by Body Mass Index (BMI), which compares a person’s height to his or her weight. People with very high BMI are considered obese. The current obesity epidemic is caused by high calorie diets and low levels of physical activity. Even though New York City has high public transportation use, physical activity has decreased here as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least 75 minutes of physical activity a week, but in the 2010 Community Health Survey, only 58.4% of adults in East Harlem reported engaging in physical activity in the last 30 days. Physical activity can be encouraged through the built environment by providing safe, aesthetically pleasing spaces in which to exercise.

Both asthma and obesity disproportionately affect African American and Hispanic populations and East Harlem, which is 31% African American and 49% Hispanic, has high rates of both diseases. Nationally, hospital visits for asthma were three times as high for African Americans compared to whites and were also higher for Hispanic populations. East Harlem has substantially higher rates of asthma hospitalizations (74.3 per 10,000) than Central Harlem (49.5) and the Upper East Side (4.4). Obesity rates in East Harlem (30.9%) are higher than those of Central Harlem (22.2%) and the Upper East Side (7.6%), the two neighboring communities, as well as New York City as a whole (23.2%). Asthma and obesity are both environmental diseases. Environmental justice can only be achieved “when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards”

Source: NYC CHS

Source: NYC CHS

Age Adjusted Hospitalization rate

Web Resources:

Check the air pollution levels in your area now:

Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act:

Asthma basics:

East Harlem Asthma Center:

Calculate your Body Mass Index:

Obesity basics:

NYC Environmental Health Tracking Portal:


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