Breathe Locally

This post was going to be about organic food and locavores both of which are growing trends here in America. Just last week, Michelle Obama planted an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn – the first garden at the White House since the FDR administration.

It seems that people are starting to care more about what they eat, where it comes from and who is potentially harmed (or helped) in the process. I like that. I like that more people are curious about and buying locally grown foods. I like the idea of waiting until something is in season before adding it to a shopping cart. I especially like the idea of cutting down on the pollution involved in shipping and producing many of the foods we buy and consume today.

Union Square Green Market

At home, my family tries to buy food grown, produced, caught, and slaughtered locally. I know what some of you might be thinking – how the hell does one do that while living in New York City? I thought that at first, as well. After all – I’m from Pennsylvania. Growing up, our milk was delivered by a local farmer before the sun came up. Our eggs could have rolled themselves over to our house. We got nearly everything locally. (The exception was Tang, which was made on the moon, by astronauts, and mostly of rocket fuel).

In my mind, the term “local” used to mean “in my neighborhood”. That’s not an option for the majority of New Yorkers, as so much of our food travels thousands of miles before it hits our bodegas and grocery stores, our restaurants and street meat stands. Our food is trucked in, shipped in by boat, train or plane and tends to leave behind it a long, dark carbon footprint.

For New Yorkers, “local” is a relative term and has come to mean “within a hundred-mile radius.” Since we have more farmer’s markets than you can shake a stick at, getting to some of those local foods is really easy.

I was excited to cover this topic as my first March Of Dimes Moms post, especially since they wrote an article recently on whether or not organic is better for your baby. Their conclusion seems to be that it’s not necessarily better. But how about trying to buy foods grown locally? I couldn’t wait to tackle this topic! But Monday came along and it had different plans. I was steered onto a much different road. You see, my son was diagnosed with asthma on Monday and that’s all I can think about right now.

Here’s how the last few days unfolded.

My son kept us up all night Sunday. He woke up every hour. His belly was tight. We thought he might have gas and constipation on top of the usual congestive rattle we’d come to know. On Monday morning, I began to realize that things were much worse than I had thought. At 3 PM he was hit with a high fever. I called the doctor. By 4 PM we were in the waiting room.

And by 5 PM we were armed with a ProNeb Ultra II, some albuterol, a more powerful round of antibiotics than he’s yet been given, and a new worry.

At that point, my husband and I did what parents do with an Internet connection: we started researching. I was looking for ways to blame myself. That’s what mothers do, right? And at first glance, my research told me that I was right. I was to blame for this—we were to blame for this. After all we live in a very polluted area. The rates of asthma in children living in North Brooklyn are on the rise.

“Ever look at dirty truck exhaust? The dirty, smoky part of that stream of exhaust is made of particle pollution. More new evidence shows that the particle pollution—like that coming from the exhaust smoke—can lead to shorter lives, heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks and can interfere with the growth and work of the lungs.”  (American Lung Association: State Of The Air)

Fact: Emory spent the first year and a half of his life living right next to the BQE (The Brooklyn/Queens Expressway). We were so close to it, the trucks used to shake our apartment. We knew all along we were inhaling harmful toxins, but we chose to stay there. We were in a lease and rent was affordable and we thought we were leaving the area at any moment.

Actual view from the back window of our apartment.

We used to clean an alarming amount of dark black soot from our windowsills. And it didn’t take long to build up. A few days would go by and a black film would lazily blanket every surface in our home. We used to joke about how our lungs must look. We were nervous.

Signs of Asthma include:

• wheezing
• rapid breathing
• labored breathing
• gasping
• difficulty breathing when exercising
• chest tightness

Generally speaking, a child must first be vulnerable to airway inflammation. Everyone is vulnerable, to some degree – and often to any number of irritants. Next, the child needs an antagonist or trigger. Triggers can range from a common cold, a sinus infection, or bronchitis, all the way to secondhand smoke, smoking, cleaning agents and air pollutants. Triggers can also be as simple as getting too much exercise or experiencing too much stress, or the absurdly cold air of a NYC March day.

When I started digging in a bit further, I realized that this isn’t specific to Brooklyn. Emory probably would been diagnosed with asthma no matter where we lived especially since almost every place we’ve ever discussed living is also on the highly polluted area list. And that’s not because our list is really short. It’s that the master list is really long. Even the small, idyllic town we’ve  been pining over for years has some of the worst statistics when it comes to the two types of air pollution at the root of the problem.

Dare to dream.

In Brooklyn, the biggest asthmatic culprit is exhaust from vehicles. This is why you’ll also find Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, The DC Metro, and a great deal of the Northeastern corridor on that list. Pretty much every city or town near a major trucking route is seeing a rise in asthma, cancer and other related illnesses. And most large, polluting vehicles (as we used to watch from our bed) are used to transfer goods – like food – into our cities.

The New England Journal of Medicine reports:

“Mortality rates were most strongly associated with cigarette smoking. After adjusting for smoking and other risk factors, we observed statistically significant and robust associations between air pollution and mortality. The adjusted mortality-rate ratio for the most polluted of the cities as compared with the least polluted was 1.26 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.08 to 1.47). Air pollution was positively associated with death from lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease but not with death from other causes considered together. Mortality was most strongly associated with air pollution with fine particulates, including sulfates.”

The simple truth is that asthma rates are on the rise, as is infant mortality and in many cases we have air pollution to blame for that. And we need to do something about it. And I don’t mean we need to come up with more medicine to throw at the problem. (Though, I am really grateful for our new nebulizer.) I think we need a more preventative approach.

So, while buying organic and/or locally grown foods may cost you a bit more monetarily,  I think that cost might be worth it when it comes to the greater good. Change won’t happen overnight, but it can happen if we just put our minds to it.

A funny thing happened as I was writing this post, I ended up within a hundred mile radius to the original topic.


  1. I know three (!) adult males (my husband is one of them) who did not have asthma before they moved to Greenpoint and have it now. Can’t be a coincidence.


  2. Do you think it’s the BQE? The waste facility near Newtown Creek? It’s perplexing as to why it’s so freaking bad around here.

    But I was perplexed by a great number of things I read. Pennsylvania, for example, is screwed where particle pollution’s concerned. And State College, a place that just screams clean air, failed at the daily reading for particle pollution. But it is next to route 80, which is a major trucking route.

    I dunno. After all that, I realized that nowhere (we’d live) is safe. Well, except for Hawaii. The folks there could live forever assuming the ocean doesn’t swallow ’em up!


  3. I am not sure what it is. My main guesses include: living on top of a giant oil spill, the industrial complex behind McGuinness Blvd, toxic air coming across the river after 9/11, ongoing construction projects, BQE for sure… I always thought I wouldn’t stay in an environment that is unhealthy, but it is not so easy to pick up and move.


  4. My daughter was diagnosed with asthma as a baby/toddler. We did the nebulizer/steroid/medication combo for a few years. Magically, around the time she started school, she grew out of it. Now, at 15, she sings in the varsity choir, plays flute, and occasionally runs track. She also reminds me quite frequently and LOUDLY that I am lame and ruining her life. In other words, he lungs work fine now. Just thought I would share a story with positive outcome. Best of luck to you.


  5. Hey girl!!! Long time no talk. feelin like I need to start writing again. Stopped when the break up began……might be ready now. Hope your doing great!


  6. I’d be curious to see comparisons to stats from European cities, or at least Italian ones. Since I started visiting there w/L in the late 90s I’ve been shocked at how horrific the air quality there — Turin, Rome, Milano — feels even to me, a longtime US city dweller. It’s my understanding that smog regulations are less stringent in the EU generally, probably more so in Italy; and most of what I feel like I’m choking on there, so to speak, feels like exhaust fumes — and I mean, like, generations of it. And so I’d be curious to see if there’s a correlative trend in asthma among children & adults there. Or if not, what explains the difference.

    My own asthma, ironically, appeared much later when I was about 10, after we’d moved to a farm (yes, literally) in rural New Hampshire. Turns out it’s genetic, but was triggered, in the sense you note, by allergies to various elements plentiful at the farm — everything from weeds to horsehair to pollens and more. The allergies had been with me since infancy, but for whatever reason or combination of reasons decided to express themselves differently as of that time. The asthma has been with me since. It does fluctuate depending on context, too — when we moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, for instance, I had an outbreak that lasted for more than a year.

    Because of all this, I wonder if it’s not smog per se that’s the trigger, but maybe some other kind of toxin or irritant. For example, something in the construction of our Brooklyn apartment might have set mine off; maybe something in your new place has caused Em’s to show itself. Could be a construction material — insulation, sealant, whatever; or could be something in the local environment that’s different from where you were before. Pesticides or industrial chemicals of some kind, maybe. Not that it’s necessarily track-down-able — maybe way too many factors at play.

    You may want to have him tested for other allergies, too, if you haven’t done this already — just to head off future mysteries in case he should start to react. This happened to me when I was about his age and my mother freaked out utterly until they did allergy testing and discovered that those were what was causing all my problems. (And if he has them, BTW, they’re largely genetic; you couldn’t have done anything to cause or avoid them.)

    Your larger point about consuming locally produced foodstuff (and anything else, really) is well taken regardless. Important on a number of fronts. It’s a huge challenge, but offers potentially huge economic upsides in a number of ways if taken on. Michael Pollan has been writing brilliantly about this for several years now; I’d recommend “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food” — excellent reads as well as powerful arguments on the subject. “Sustainability” is the watchword, not organic as such. Organic is only one consideration among many.


  7. It sounds like you are taking a healthy approach to evaluating all the info out there. There is so much to digest. The reality is that it is very hard, if not impossible, to know what caused anyone’s asthma.

    There are some things that we can’t change which increase risk like gender (females often have slightly higher levels), ethnicity (some minorities are at greater risk), age (children have higher levels than adults) and family history.

    And there are some things which we do have some control over – smoking (in our own homes at least), exposure to chemicals in the home, and humidifier/vaporizer use.

    And then there are that other class of risk factors that are more difficult to control like exposure to truck traffic, local air quality (pollen, mold, ozone, fine particulates), respiratory infections, access to medical care, income level, and exposure to other home inhabitants (a nice way of saying dust mites, animal dander, and cockroaches).

    I think it is this latter category which takes a more community-based approach for asthma prevention. Hopefully your little guy outgrows his asthma!


  8. The exact same thing happened to my niece when she was ~18 months old and my brother and sister-in-law moved to Los Angeles. She was constantly congested and sick throughout toddlerhood, went through the whole nebulizer thing, and then eventually grew out of it. Her pediatrician was adamant that it was the smog in LA.


  9. Sort of related to this topic…

    Today’s news from the MTA. They approved rate hikes. And guess who got hurt? The folks who live here and pay to use it instead of drive.

    A 30-day unlimited card, which is what many locals buy, will cost will cost $103 (currently $81).


    How on earth can they justify that during a recession? Also, doesn’t this send us a message working AGAINST using public transportation?

    Not that there’s anywhere to park in the city.

    I don’t understand this one bit. Maybe it’s my lack of sleep.

    (Also, for the record, I do realize that there are other even natural contaminates that lead to asthma. But we can’t control those as much. I do think we can cut down on particle pollution that comes from transporting commercial goods and commercial farms.)


  10. First off, I have to ask if the well-spoken Brad above has a blog. His comments are always so well-thought-out.

    And on to the post: When I lived in the Bronx in 2001-2 and worked in an elementary school I was shocked at how many children were asthmatic. It was astounding compared to my own experiences of having less than ten peers with asthma my whole schooling life. I asked a parent/coworker about it and she mentioned medical waste incineration that’s done locally. Never looked into it but it made sense that these “city kids” had a greater likelihood to have a genetic predisposition brought out to medical diagnosis by their environment.

    Your point about buying local has hit home. It’s something I’m trying to do anyway but you’ve added to the many reasons why it’s beneficial. And local over organic for babies? Interesting. Noted.

    Good luck with Em; I hope this is not a permanent diagnosis and that you’re able to manage it without it consuming you. It’s tough to have a little one ill.


  11. Ashley: Kind words. Thanks for asking. I had 3 of them, but they’re all on hiatus since the birth of our son & the ensuing relocations & adjustments. To return soon, I hope. (Clicking on my name here will, I think, take you to the most recent one, which also happens to be the one I’d most eagerly like to “finish” soon.)

    FWIW Jonathan Kozol writes about children in the South Bronx in either “Savage Inequalities” or “Amazing Grace” or perhaps both; one of the things he notes is soaring rates of asthma. Like, dramatically higher than national averages, IIRC. This was back in the early ’90s. I can’t remember if he identified a cause but I think the suspicion, from him and others, was industrial waste of various kinds that had never been properly remediated.

    If that’s so, there could easily be similar issues in Williamsburg/Greenpoint. Last year our Brooklyn real estate attorney showed me a map of the Gowanus area from around the turn of the century. It was one toxic outpost after another: tanneries, ironworks, refineries, etc., all lining the canal. I was astounded. Pretty much any business that generated toxic waste had set up shop there, almost as if the canal had been constructed for that very purpose. (Maybe it was.) This was right around the time Whole Foods announced that their big store on 3rd would be put on hold. When I saw that map, I understood why — and figured the hold might well be permanent. It’s not just the original degradation, it’s also the decades of neglect and coverup. I’m not sure it will ever get clean.

    I don’t know that this is a cause of anything, but it certainly seems possible.


  12. Yes, for the record, I do love me some Brad and miss him greatly. :]

    Regarding the waterways near here: Newtown creek is just a mess. Let me see if I can dig up some links about how horrible it is due to toxic waste (and the infamous oil spill.)

    Also, didn’t they discover live syphilis in the Gowanus (sp?) canal recently? WTF waterways has VD?


  13. Re: eating locally — Garden of Eve Farm’s CSA is amazing, organic, you can pick up in McCarren or McGolrick park, and the farm is 80 miles away. You can get a share that provides vegetables, fruit, eggs and flowers if you like, all organic.


  14. Great post, Michele!

    I heartily second the recommendation of joining a CSA. You’re basically buying a share of a small farm somewhere a bit upstate, so you know exactly where your food comes from, and you’ll get the freshest stuff possible. That’s the other huge benefit to eating local: you’re usually eating food that’s been picked that morning or the day before, which tastes better and is better for you. Basically, the quality/flavor/nutrients of a fruit or vegetable start deteriorating as soon as it’s picked, and if it sits on a truck for a week on its way from California, it’s going to be a lot less tasty and have a lot fewer vitamins.

    I have loved my CSA (you get your share of veggies/fruit, and there’s also the opportunity to order meat/cheese/eggs–all of which are basically the best I have ever eaten), and there are many of them in different neighborhoods throughout the city, so if it’s something you’re interested in, I’m sure there’s one near you.


  15. Thanks, guys! I will look into it.


  16. This is my no. 1 concern with raising my son in NYC. We live right near a bus stop and the soot by those windows is terrible. We got a ton of planst that are known to clean the air well but that is not enough. I have looked into air purifiers a few times but have gotten overwhelmed with the options every time. Some research say some types make the problem worse….argh. Have you looked into this?


  17. Air quality would help a lot if ppl promoted public transportation, but there is also the matter of commercial traffic, at least on certain expressways in NYC. Freight trains don’t pass through NYC for the most part, so trucks have to be used to transport goods into the city.

    I am not necessarily advocating the tunnel proposed here, but this discusses some of the issues:

    Good luck with Em.


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