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Not breathing easy

Schenectady County is state’s asthma hot spot

Aging structures, poverty rate cited as factors

Sunday, April 13, 2014
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Not breathing easy


Adrienne Powell of Schenectady uses a nebulizer during a recent interview at her home.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Adrienne Powell of Schenectady uses a nebulizer during a recent interview at her home.

Adrienne Powell learned she had asthma in 2006. She had been applying for social services in New York City and the results of a physical showed she had the chronic lung disease and a heart condition.

She had never really noticed the asthma — she had been dealing with a number of health issues for years — until she moved to Schenectady later that year. She’d go in for a deep breath and come up short. During a paint job of her Jefferson Street apartment, she and her husband found the culprit.

“We were taking the old paint from the walls and there it was,” Powell said.

Mold. A lot of it. The landlord had painted right over it.

“Four Jefferson [St.], it’s going to get you sick,” she said. “The building needs to be condemned. The wind would get in easily. And then you talk to people and find out this mold’s throughout the whole building.”

That building, at the corner of Front and Jefferson streets, is now listed on a foreclosure website as up for auction. After four years there, Powell and her husband could finally afford to move.

There were other things that made Powell’s asthma act up. Anytime she walked more than just a few blocks, she had to use an inhaler. She also admits to occasionally forgetting to take her Symbicort, a preventive medicine her doctor recommends she take twice daily.

Unhealthy combo

Schenectady County is the asthma capital of the state, according to a state Comptroller’s Office report released last week that showed more than 13 percent of residents enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program have the lung disease. The county had higher rates of asthma in fiscal year 2012-13 than anywhere else in the state, and coming in close behind was the Bronx and three other Capital Region counties — Fulton, Rensselaer and Montgomery. At Ellis Hospital, more than 1,000 visits each year are for asthma and the treatment costs upward of $2 million.

But for everything that health professionals are doing to address asthma in the state, there is still no clear answer as to what is causing high rates in some places and not others. The common denominator in asthmatic Capital Region communities appears to be a mix of poverty and substandard housing.

In the poor, rural counties of Fulton and Montgomery, public health officials blame environmental triggers, smoking and the direct correlation between a person’s socioeconomic status and their ability to afford renovations like carpet removal to rid a home of asthma triggers.

“We have known about the high prevalence of asthma here for a while,” said Nathan Littauer Hospital spokeswoman Cheryl McGrattan. “A lot of it is environmental, but also our older housing stock. We ran a program that taught families how to keep their homes safe with affordable things like getting rid of stuffed animals or buying mattress covers.”

Some genetics and behaviors can increase the risk of developing asthma, such as having a family member with asthma or smoking or being overweight. The environment plays a role, too. Someone regularly exposed to pollution or fumes or chemicals from farming or manufacturing can develop asthma. Thunderstorms, high humidity and breathing in cold air all can trigger attacks.

Deb Rembert used to need her nebulizer more in the summer. It helped her breathe when it was humid.

But the 56-year-old Schenectady woman also suspects that her living situations don’t make things easier. In her 30s, she rented an apartment on the 1100 block of Albany Street that had mold and mildew. That was when she first developed the lung disease.

“My asthma used to flare up constantly in that house,” she said.

These days, she rents an apartment on State Street. Though there’s no mildew or mold that she knows of, there was a roach infestation once.

Cockroaches and their droppings can trigger an asthma attack. So can dust and dust mites, second-hand smoke, mold and mildew, and other insects — all triggers commonly found in the housing stock of Schenectady’s low-income neighborhoods.

Rembert, who went on to found a tenants advocacy group called STAMP, said she hears from Schenectady tenants all the time about “deplorable housing conditions” with any number of health hazards. The problem is that many of them are afraid to speak out, she said, for fear of getting kicked out or having their rent jacked up.

She spoke of one woman who had been living in the city’s Barney Square apartments, a complex within the historic H.S. Barney Co. building on lower State Street that was converted into apartments in 1980.

“She had mold under her carpet,” said Rembert. “It was really set in there, and it was really affecting her asthma and she went to court against her landlord for that and a bunch of other problems and lost.”

Brenda Lewis calls them slumlords. She had to move from her apartment at 815 Strong St. because her landlord refused to do anything about the black mold. She only found out about it when her upstairs neighbor was hospitalized with a severe asthma attack.

Doing right thing

Lewis, who has asthma as well, moved to a new place next door with her girlfriend and several children. For the most part, she was able to keep her asthma in check. But last year she ended up going to the emergency room twice for asthma-related issues and now wonders if maybe she didn’t move far enough.

“This building I’m in now, my air capacity is not so good,” she said. “I’m right next door to my old place so I wonder if it’s just in this area.”

The difference at her new place? The landlord seems to care. After she mentioned that her breathing issues had grown worse, he agreed to replace all of the carpets in the building.

This is how landlords should behave, said Chris Morris, director of Schenectady Landlords Influencing Change. Her group hears more about the prevalence of bedbugs and lead than it does mold or asthma, but it’s all the same, she said.

“If there is a health hazard, we push our landlords to do the right thing for their tenants,” she said. “We’re always going after them to do the right thing and be reasonable and get their properties in order. But it can be costly and money can make all the difference.”

Rembert, who advocates on behalf of tenants, doesn’t believe all the blame should be placed on landlords, though. She pointed to a culture of carelessness that some inner-city parents seem to have about smoking near children.

“Smoking is a bad trigger for asthma,” she said. “And a lot of these people are going around smoking in front of their children. But they’re living in such depressing situations, so these things happen.”

Schenectady County may be able to do something about its high rate with a $25,000 grant it received last week from the New York State Health Foundation. The grant will fund an educational program and at-home visits by public health nurses to identify household triggers

 
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