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Breathing That Peace Bridge Air

Buffalo Schools superintendent ducks inquiry on asthma rates among West Side students

Buffalo Superintendent of Schools James Williams’ response to a Board of Education resolution seems likely to extend an ongoing controversy. And, in a related matter, Artvoice has obtained a previously unreleased copy of a tally of respiratory illness among students at four public schools on Buffalo’s West Side.

Last June, a board resolution directed Williams to request that the Environmental Protection Agency study the impact of car and truck emissions on air quality as a result of the Peace Bridge Expansion Project, and the possible consequences on Buffalo students’ health. After about a seven-and-one-half-month delay he has apparently acted, but his formal response doesn’t seem calculated to satisfy at least some board members, including the resolution’s author.

West District board member Ralph Hernandez told Artvoice last week that the superintendent had apologized three weeks ago for not moving on this matter more expeditiously and had promised to act on it promptly. On February 13, Williams sent a letter to Kenneth A. Schoetz, the Peace Bridge Authority chairman. Williams wrote that he wanted to notify Schoetz of the board’s concerns with regard to “environmental and air-quality impacts around district schools” and their “potentially adverse health effects” on children and adults in city schools. A phone inquiry to Williams’ office about the reason he had for communicating with Schoetz instead of public officials elicited a “no comment” from his public relations representative.

In a brief interview this week in the Artvoice office, Hernandez said, “This is unacceptable.” Former Common Councilmember Alfred Coppola had a sharper response to the letter this week: “This is like sending a letter to the fox as he sits outside the hen house.” Coppola has been working for several years with Peace Bridge-area residents, environmentalists, and others to prevent the PBA from expanding its truck inspection plaza according to its current plan, and destroying part of the adjacent neighborhood. Kathleen Mecca, a leader in the neighborhood community organization, said Williams had “contacted the polluter, ignoring the children who go to school every week with asthma.”

District administrators have had the results of a quantitative survey of asthma among students in four Buffalo schools since last summer. They have not made them available to parents or the public, and when Artvoice recently made a request for a copy, Associate Superintendent Mel Alston rejected the request.

These statistics were collected in June of last year from a review of student records and from inquiries conducted by principals and nurses in four schools: No. 3, 18, 30 and 76. (This writer erroneously reported in a previous article two weeks ago that Alston was responsible for the survey. Rather, these four schools sent it to him last summer.)

The data from this effort indicate a high prevalence of students diagnosed with asthma. The total for the four schools was 606 students. The one with the largest number, D’Youville-Porter School No. 3, had 245 cases, more than a third of those enrolled. (It is the school nearest the bridge entrance.) School 30 had a similarly large number, 223. There were 87 in school 76, 51 in 18.

The staff and principals in those schools also calculated the numbers according to ZIP codes and found that three zones had by far the largest incidence of diagnoses: 14201, 14207, and 14213, the three nearest the bridge and Niagara Street.

An administrator in one of the schools, who requested anonymity because of an order from City Hall not to discuss this subject with journalists or the public, said that since these results had been sent to the district’s headquarters last summer, the principals had heard nothing about them from the superintendent’s office.

This survey’s tally seems consistent with a study in 2006 by University at Buffalo Professor Jamson S. Lwebuga-Mukasa of more than 5,400 West Side children which found an asthma prevalence of 22.3 percent, three times the national average.

Mecca expressed disappointment at what she said was the lack of a clear focus on this problem by the superintendent and the board. “They’re stewards of the students’ safety and welfare,” she said. “They have a responsibility to address existing asthma conditions,” as well as the prospect of greater environmental hazards from the PBA’s plans.

george sax

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