Addressing the Environmental Risks for Asthma in Trenton

The environmental risk factors that can increase the chance of an asthmatic person experiencing an asthma attack are varied and abundant in Trenton and other urban areas. Because of the range of potential asthma triggers present in the city, there is no one solution that can make Trenton safer for those with the condition. A local organization is currently tackling one facet of the problem, starting inside the homes of Trenton residents. 

“You can give a child a boatload of medicine, but if they’re going home to the same environment that triggers the condition, it’s kind of a wash,” said Elyse Pivnick, the senior director of Isles Inc.’s Environmental Health Initiative. “It’s hard to get ahead of the problem.”

Isles Inc. is an organization that seeks to build a healthy, sustainable Trenton community. It currently has an initiative designed to address environmental health risks that originate in poorly-maintained housing, including those that serve as triggers for asthma and other respiratory diseases, like mold and pests.

 Asthma is a significant concern for the population of Trenton, as a report from the New Jersey Department of Health indicated that the city’s residents visit the emergency room for asthma 3.8 times more than the average New Jersey resident. And even though Trenton only holds 23% of Mercer County’s population, 73% of asthma-related emergency room visits in Mercer County occurred in Trenton during the time period the data was collected.

“We started out doing a lot of education, a lot of training of peer counselors from Trenton, who would go into the homes, particularly those of families who had members with asthma,” said Pivnick. “And they were able to help the family understand the environmental triggers for asthma in the house.”

Isles Inc.’s environmental health initiative focuses on training peer counselors, to give them the tools they will need to be a part of making change in their community. The initiative regularly hosts online training events for the benefit of those seeking to become peer counselors, providing them with the information they will need to spot potential environmental risk factors in their homes and in the homes of their family, friends and community.

“We also train home visitors, contractors, anyone that’s going to a house to provide services to families,” said Andre Thomas, a building inspector and manager for Isles’ Center for Energy and Environmental Training.

The sessions hosted by Isles Inc. go beyond issues that can be resolved by the residents of a building without outside help.

“We educate them on how they can push their landlords, and we become advocates for the families to deal with their landlords,” said Thomas.

Isles Inc. also provides a variety of pamphlets and other distributable resources for residents to learn more about the environmental health risks present in their homes even if they do not have regular internet access. They also offer free housing surveys and repair work to renters and homeowners who fall below a certain income threshold. 

A page from an environmental health risk pamphlet distributed by Isles Inc.

One consideration that is not factored into the work done by Isle’s Inc. to help asthmatic residents of Trenton is air pollution from industry and vehicular traffic, and so it remains an unaddressed environmental risk for people in the city. However, work being done by some professors and students at the College of New Jersey may provide an avenue to begin to address this issue.

Dr. Nathan Magee, a professor involved in the project, will work with students in his classes and his research lab to to install sensors in neighborhoods around the city of Trenton that will take readings on heat and air quality. Magee believes his work in the city is particularly important because it will allow street and neighborhood-level data analysis.

“Most of the research and resources and maps that are out there, don’t provide that level of neighborhood scale detail that people really need in order to understand the true risk where they are,” said Magee.

Thomas and Pivnick both incorporate Isle’s Inc.’s goal of building community and individual self-reliance into their organization’s environmental health initiatives. It is important to them that their programs and training opportunities give residents of Trenton the right tools that will equip them to be advocates for their own health and safety.

“That’s one of the challenges of public health in older communities with a lot of low income people,” said Pivnick. “Reaching the grassroots level and aiding them in handling these types of environmental health risks is critical.”

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