Op-ed | NYC’s asthma epidemic means clean energy is a public health issue

Asthma medecine inhaler holded by a man
Brooklyn stands out with a higher rate of youth mortality from asthma than New York City overall. 
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New Yorkers are choking on the air we breathe. Increased air pollution is driving an asthma epidemic that continues to have a significant impact on children and families. As our leaders in Albany debate what to fund in this year’s budget, it is critical that they prioritize investments in clean energy that will address this longstanding public health crisis and avoid other dangers of climate change.

The negative health impacts of air pollution are evident across New York. Several areas of New York City have some of the country’s highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths due to asthma, with African American and Latino patients accounting for more than 80 percent of these cases. Brooklyn, my birthplace, stands out with a higher rate of youth mortality from asthma than New York City overall. 

Mitigating this crisis requires cleaning up our air – and the best way to do that is by investing in clean energy. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is linked to thousands of deaths each year. Furthermore, burning fossil fuels for energy also drives climate change, which makes asthma worse for people who have it.

As the climate gets warmer, plants create more pollen, increasing the risk of asthma attacks for people whose asthma is triggered by allergies, and making the pollen season longer. Climate change also increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires, as we saw this summer when Canadian fires blanketed our city in smoke. Wildfire smoke contains particle pollution, which is dangerous for everyone and is particularly toxic for children. 

Family physicians, and other primary care clinicians, diagnose and treat a multitude of diseases that result from the impact of climate change and poor environmental conditions. As the head of family medicine at Northwell Health, my team and I work daily to care for New Yorkers struggling with asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions. 

I’m proud of the work my team and I do, but we can only treat one patient at a time. To truly eliminate the disproportionate health burden asthma places on our communities, we need to go upstream and reduce air pollution. An effective way to address the root environmental causes of asthma is replacing electricity generated by burning fossil fuels like coal or natural gas with energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power.

This is why more and more doctors have begun advocating for better clean energy policies. I recently represented Northwell and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) at the international climate change conference, COP 28, where I highlighted the impact of air pollution and climate change on public health, and I know many other doctors who are getting involved in the fight to clean up our energy system to address the negative health impacts of air pollution.

New York has set some of the most ambitious clean energy goals in the country, but now we need our lawmakers to make the investments necessary to achieve these goals.

We are making progress. Governor Hochul recently announced the largest state investment in renewable energy in history, supporting projects that will generate enough clean energy to power 2.6 million homes. One of the projects, Community Offshore Wind, will connect to the electric grid in Brooklyn, and generate enough clean power to cut emissions from the state’s electrical grid by 5 percent. That’s the equivalent of taking 11 million cars off our streets. 

These projects address both of the major drivers of asthma in New York. First, by providing power that would otherwise come from burning fossil fuels, they directly reduce air pollution that damages New Yorkers’ lungs and causes asthma attacks. On top of these direct benefits, investing in clean energy will reduce the likelihood of dangerous weather caused by climate change, like hurricanes and blizzards, and help stop the global temperature increases that have caused longer pollen seasons and more dangerous wildfires.

Clean energy projects will also create new employment opportunities for thousands of New Yorkers, which we know fosters better health outcomes for workers and their families. According to NYSERDA’s latest Clean Energy Industry Report, clean energy businesses have been hiring workers at a faster rate than the economy overall, including creating more than 52,000 jobs in disadvantaged communities. Over time, this industry will provide a path out of poverty for thousands of New Yorkers, which will lead to improved health for today’s kids and future generations.

New York’s asthma epidemic is a crisis of our own making. Fortunately, we have the power to make changes that will protect our children. We need our leaders in Albany to address the root cause of this public health crisis in this year’s budget by investing in zero-emission renewable energy projects.

Dr. Tochi Malize is American Academy of Family Physicians Board Chair and Northwell Health Senior Vice President of Family Medicine.