Rhode Island Ranked in Top 10 for Asthma Rate

Nearly 11 percent of state’s population suffers from the chronic lung disease

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A study of air pollution along Interstate 95 found what has long been suspected: neighborhoods close to the highway and the city’s industrial waterfront are suffering from unhealthy emissions.

The $500,000 report funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency showed harmful levels of several air pollutants. The data was released along with new maps showing rates of asthma in Rhode Island. Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket had the highest levels.

Rhode Island has the ninth-highest rate of asthma in the country, with 10.9 percent of the population suffering from the respiratory condition. The national average is 8.4 percent.

Julian Rodriguez Drix of the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) explained that poor housing conditions and outdoor air pollution are the biggest contributor to asthma. Indoor asthma triggers include mold, chemicals, and mice.

The data was based on emergency room and doctors visits, so it wasn’t known if indoor or outdoor air pollution was a greater contributor to the health problems. Low-income and residents of color had noticeably higher levels of asthm

The data was released at a lightly attended public event at the Community Preparatory School in South Providence on Feb. 13.

Former city resident Melissa Jenkins wasn’t happy about the state’s inaction on policing pollution generated by the industrial waterfront on Allens Avenue.

“It’s inappropriate zoning when you have a densely populate community of color or people who can’t afford to move, they have to commute to their jobs, their children are going to school there, and you are killing them,” Jenkins said.

She pressed Karen Slattery of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to explain why the agency wasn’t monitoring and regulating polluters, such as metals recyclers and fossil-fuel processors along Allens Avenue.

Drix noted that the state agencies often operate independently but that data from future studies will lead to coordinated efforts to address pollution.

Former DEM air pollution expert Barbara Morin conducted the air pollution study. The report concluded that the pollutants from cars and trucks along Interstate 95 increased the risk for lung cancer and respiratory, cardiac and neurological diseases. Air monitoring devices were placed at locations where vulnerable residents spend their time, such as day-care centers, parks, residences, and medical centers.

The monitors were in place for one year starting in April 2017. Portable monitors also took readings for shorter periods in suburban and rural areas. The study measured 40 pollutants, including black carbon from diesel exhaust and ultrafine particles. The study surveyed volatile organic compounds, benzene, and other airborne carcinogens in vehicle fuel.

The study found that weekday mornings had the highest levels of air pollution along the highway corridor. Proximity to industrial facilities also influenced pollution levels. Trees acted as buffers for reducing pollution.

The report should help with siting of educational and health facilities, as well as new housing and playgrounds, Morin said.

“None of this is earth-shattering but we just feel like it’s important that these considerations be included in any kind of decision-making, particularly if it involves children or people who might be sensitive,” Morin said.

DOH and DEM expect to post the studies online, followed by holding public workshops across the state.