11/04/2014 10:27 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

WE ACT for Environmental Justice: "Moms Make Connection on What Makes Families Sick"

This past March, a gas explosion that leveled two buildings and killed eight people, devastated the East Harlem community in New York City. For a neighborhood already facing environmental challenges, it was a major blow. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that asthma complaints, beyond those that pre-existed before the accident, are on the rise.

I reached out to Cecil D. Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director of Policy Initiatives at MCAF partner, WE ACT, an environmental justice organization that advocates for northern Manhattan residents in Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood. The organization's stated mission is to "build healthy communities by assuring that people of color and/or low-income participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices." WE ACT was founded in 1988 to push back against the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. In the same year, they took on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority via a lawsuit, to challenge plans to build a sixth diesel bus depot in their vicinity.

Corbin-Mark explained that the blast has had numerous consequences beyond the physical impact. Residents continue to experience psychological ramifications. Additionally, there is the ongoing concern about residual "unmitigated" dust from the demolished buildings. During the hot days of summer, conditions were exacerbated. Lead and toxic chemicals, a component of the dust, found its way from the streets into apartment interiors.

Indoor air quality is recognized as one of the drivers of respiratory ailments. The EPA estimates that Americans spend 90 percent of their time at home, where major triggers for asthma exist. Corbin-Mark spoke to the reality that the "poor condition" of the area's housing stock adds to the problem. He also pointed to a "lack of follow through" on clean up from landlords after the explosion.

"Enforcement and legislative hooks" are the route Corbin-Mark sees as the path toward resolving landlord dereliction. "We don't have policy on the books," he said. Putting the "New York City Asthma Free Housing Act" into place would "require owners of multiple dwellings, where a person with respiratory problems resides, to prevent and immediately remove indoor allergen hazards such as mold, cockroaches, mice, rats, and dust mites."

Part of the goal of WE ACT is to engage residents in action. Their model employs community-based research, leading to advocacy- based policy. This in turn creates a "real route to systemic change." In November, they are sponsoring The Healthy Homes Summit.

Corbin-Mark spoke about the role of mothers in protecting their children's health. He said, "Moms make the connection between their homes and what is making their family sick." They also understand lost days of work spent at the doctors, and lost days of school for ill children. One of the key concerns for parents is the elimination of toxins in the home that create neurological impairment--preventing "successful futures" for their kids.

Corbin-Mark pointed to the importance of individuals voting. "We get the politicians we elect," he said. "There's no doubt that policy matters."

This article originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force

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