Study will monitor FreshDirect trucks

Port Morris resident Jeanine Alfieri at home with her new air pollution monitor. Photo: Paula Moura

Jeanine Alfieri, 56, has to dust twice a week. A black layer of grime quickly accumulates on the surfaces in her house on a busy street in Port Morris, where trucks rumble along daily on their way to nearby expressways. This month, cleaning could become much harder.

The food giant FreshDirect is scheduled to move its headquarters from Queens to the Port Morris waterfront early in 2018. Alfieri has volunteered to be part of an 18-month Columbia University study to monitor air pollution and noise in the area.

“Of course I’m worried,” she said. She has suffered from acute sinusitis and asthma since she was 10. Air pollution and pollen trigger such strong headaches that she can’t even look at the light.

At least 1,000 more trucks will be passing through the South Bronx each day, says Markus Hilpert, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia, who is leading the study. Residents’ concern that the increased pollution will raise respiratory and cardiovascular disease rates prompted them to ask Columbia to measure the impact of FreshDirect’s move.

“It’s one of the highest population densities in New York City,” said Hilpert, who was contacted by grassroots advocacy group South Bronx Unite to conduct the study. “They might be all affected by the opening of FreshDirect.”

Noelle Selin, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the air pollution is bound to increase unless something is done to mitigate the impact. She also points out that few studies measuring air quality have been done where people actually live, and data from research like Columbia’s is more accurate than data from official stations.

“Previous research has shown that lower-income communities tend to be more exposed to certain kinds of pollutants, in particular air pollutants,” she said. “Quantifying that and really understanding it is a first step to making sure everyone has a clean air to breathe.”

Community opinion about the new headquarters is divided. Some residents hope it will create jobs; others have protested and even filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to block the move.

Last summer Hilpert installed air filters and noise measurement devices in six locations, including Alfieri’s home. He collected data on black carbon and particle material 2.5 emissions — a tiny solid air pollutant the size of 2.5 microns that can enter the blood-stream when inhaled — and he will compare that data to the emissions level when the new fleet of trucks starts running.

“One of the challenges is that this is already a community that is marked by not only social disadvantage but health disparities,” said Diana Hernandez, a Columbia researcher and Mott Haven resident who is part of the research team. She cites the 2015 U.S. Community Health Profile, which shows that Mott Haven and Melrose have the city’s highest hospitalization rates among 5-to-14-year-olds. Both that figure and the adult rate of avoidable hospitalization for asthma are three times as high as the citywide rates.

FreshDirect declined to comment. In an e-mail, a company representative simply stated: “We’re pleased to be a part of the Mott Haven community and greatly look forward to opening our new home.”

The equipment at Alfieri’s house for the study emits a constant hum, but she says it doesn’t bother her. “I’m so happy to be involved,” she said, “and hope the data gets people to move on something.”