Yvette Bonilla lives in Hunts Point with her daughter and three grandchildren. All three generations suffer from asthma. Tens of thousands of trucks rumble through Hunts Point daily on their way to waste transfer stations where 40 percent of New York City’s commercial waste is dumped. Over the years, the poor air quality created an unhealthy atmosphere for Hunts Point residents, where one in four children suffer from asthma.
Yvette Bonilla, 55, lives in Hunts Point with her daughter Jessica, 33 and three grandkids, Cuzita, 16, Wilfredo, 12 and Priscilla, 10. All three generations suffer from asthma.
Huns Point is a neighborhood in the South Bronx where 40 percent of New York City’s commercial waste is dumped. It is also home to the largest wholesale produce market in the world, the Hunts Point Market. As a result, the tens of thousands of trucks going to and from these locations daily create an unhealthy atmosphere for the 9,000 people living in Hunts Point.
According to the New York City Department of Health a child’s chance of suffering from asthma is one in four. This is much higher than the overall New York City childhood asthma rate, which is one in 10.
Researchers from Lehman College and NYU’s Graduate School of Public Service have identified diesel truck emissions as the main cause of the high asthma rate in the community, along with emissions from factories and sewage plants.
This issue was first brought to light over a decade ago and spawned an environmental justice movement in the South Bronx. Today, there are over a dozen organizations in the community fighting to close the waste facilities and clean the air in the neighborhood.
Yvette gives us a glimpse into what living with asthma is like for her family and the challenges that come with the environmental burdens of her neighborhood.
Yvette: It’s like somebody like putting a pillow on you on your face, and you’re trying to breathe like they want to suffocate you. That’s how it feels. It’s tight. You want to gasp for that air.
Text: 40% of NYC’s commercial waste is dumped in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx.
Yvette: The way the atmosphere is out there. It’s ick.
Priscilla: Like the sanitation trucks, since they have all the garbage, it stinks and then it makes me feel like it’s hard to breathe.
Text: The asthma rate is 1 in 10. For children, it’s 1 in 4.
Yvette: I started at the age of 12. And it was really hard. It was really difficult to live with it. And I still do. I’m 55 years old, and I still live with asthma.
Priscilla: I was sleeping one day and my chest started to hurt and it just kept getting worser and worser and my mom had to rush me to the hospital. It felt like somebody’s sitting on your chest.
Yvette: Asthma is like you know it’s really tricky. You could be one moment fine, and then the next moment you could be like in the hospital.
Behind the Scenes
During the first visit Cesar and I took to Hunts Point, it became very evident to me that there was indeed a significant environmental health problem in the neighborhood. The sound of trucks filled the air and the smell of garbage was often present. We walked on a road where several scrap metal and recycling facilities were located – only two blocks from where Yvette and her family live. Truck after truck zoomed past us, lifting dust and dirt into the air.
After two hours of filming in this environment, I began to cough. A lot. Pretty soon the coughing became uncontrollable, so much so that Cesar suggested I bring a handkerchief to cover my face the next time we went to film. I could feel the dust had settled in my lungs and coughed the entire subway ride home.
I do not have asthma. So it was difficult to imagine if it were that uncomfortable for me to walk around in the neighborhood for only two hours, how it must be for someone with asthma who lives there.
It was my goal to convey how poor the air quality is in the neighborhood, which is why I chose to follow a family living with asthma. Ideally, I would have liked to spend more time with them to get more intimate scenes, but scheduling just did not work out that way.
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