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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Geographic Satellite Mapping

Air Date: Week of

Geographic Information Systems (or GIS) are among the latest technological tools being used to help local community leaders track data which may show possible links between land use and public health effects. Beth Fertig reports from Bronx, New York.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One of the biggest challenges for grassroots environmental activists has often been their inability to link human health problems with particular sources of pollution. With spotty information and many possible causes, it has been tough to prove, for example, that a hazardous waste dump is responsible for a certain cancer cluster. But now advances in computer technology have given some activists a powerful new tool. It's called the Geographic Information System, and it allows them to combine information on environmental hazards, neighborhood demographics, the flow of ground water and other data, into a multidimensional map of their community. As Beth Fertig of member station WNYC reports from New York City, community leaders in one polluted area are hoping to use the computer program to protect the health of their neighborhood.

(Woman: "Okay. Anthony, all the number eights. Can you find all the number eights?")

FERTIG: The children in Eva's day care center look healthy and happy as they play with a deck of cards scattered across a hardwood floor. But here in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, director Eva Sahnhorho says many of her children are often ill. She notices complaints especially when a nearby factory emits a foul-smelling smoke.

SAHNHORHO: They have asthma attacks, especially too when -- I have one, she has chronic asthma, and she's told me, "Eva, when the smell is out, very bad headache." She starts wheezing, like high ventilating. And it's when the smell is out.

FERTIG: Eva Sahnhorho admits it's hard to prove any link between the illnesses and the factory, which turns solid waste into fertilizer. City health officials studied a public school near the facility and found asthma rates are no higher than the city-wide average. But in this heavily-industrialized borough, home to many factories and the city's only medical waste incinerator, residents are still concerned about airborne pollutants. Overall, asthma rates in the Bronx are twice the national average, and lead poisoning rates are also very high. So community leaders are hoping a new computer program will tell them more about the effects local industries are having on the health of their neighborhood. Last fall, the Federal Government awarded a $300,000 environmental justice grant to the Bronx to set up a Geographic Information System, or GIS. Associate Director Juliana Mantaay says the GIS computer software will enable her staff to plot highly detailed maps of the local environment which incorporate area health data.

MANTAAY: This GIS, when it's complete, will have information about every property lot in the Bronx. You'll be able to know what was there before, what hazardous conditions may exist on there in terms of soil, contamination, what the air quality is.

FERTIG: The Bronx GIS program is said to be the largest study of its kind in the nation. A similar project is also underway in a smaller industrialized community in nearby Brooklyn. Analyst Linda Timander shows off the data that's been collected.

TIMANDER: In this picture we have the waste transfer stations, and we have the census tracts. And in any census tract you have the population, the total population figures. So just to get an idea, to start to get an idea of how much, how many people are affected by the waste transfer station.

FERTIG: City environmentalists concede even mounds of data alone may not prove any link between land use and environmental or health effects. Still, Steve Richardson, director of the New York Environmental Action Coalition, says the new computer program can prove to be an effective tool.

RICHARDSON: That information is only as effective as you have a community which is strong, which is organized, which is able to develop political muscle, to get the authorities to listen to the conclusions that they draw from that information.

FERTIG: Bronx community leaders are already excited about the new GIS program. Carlos Pedilla is co-chair of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, he says he'll use the GIS data to press local factories to clean up their emissions and when lobbying city officials on planning and zoning issues.

PEDILLA: When we go into a room we're going to debate professionals who are hired by these corporations. Okay? These guys turn around, they say well I'm from Harvard and Yale, I got 46 degrees, and you're completely wrong, because see, you don't have a degree. The only thing you have is a child who's dying with asthma, bleeding through his nose, a sick community. But that's not credentials.

FERTIG: Officials at the Center for A Sustainable Urban Environment, which is conducting the GIS research, plan to release a preliminary study of the Bronx health and environmental data in 6 months. The program is funded only through the fall and the center is presently lining up grants to continue its research. For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.



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