Complaints About Air Quality Persist in Midtown



West 36th Street in the Garment District. Photo by Juanita Gordon

When Nadine D’Agostino walks through the Garment District to her job, she holds her breath to avoid inhaling the construction particles in the air. At times, she finds it difficult to breathe and covers her eyes to protect herself from the dust-filled streets. 

D’Agostino, a bar manager at the Deco, a food hall on West 39th Street, lives in Queens. She commutes to Midtown five days a week and works nine-hour shifts. Originally from Syracuse, New York, D’Agostino said the air in her rural hometown is much cleaner compared to the Garment District.

“I would say that it’s a lot more of a stuffy feeling in Midtown. Whereas in Upstate, for example, you can take a big breath of air and you feel like you’re getting a breath of fresh air in your lungs,” said D’Agostino.

A study released in April by the American Lung Association, titled “State of the Air,” measured air quality in industrialized cities between 2000-2020 and gave New York City a passing grade for particulate matter contamination. But in Midtown, especially near the major transit hubs, the air quality is still poor by certain measures. And New Yorkers like D’Agostino notice the effects the pollution is having on their day-to-day lives.

Although the American Lung Association removed New York from its list of the 25 Most Polluted Cities with Particulate Matter, the city still has environmental challenges, including high localized concentrations of particulate matter. 

“These very, very fine particles can go systematically throughout the body and increase the risk of having heart attacks,” said George Thurston, professor of medicine and population health at NYU Langone Hospital. Long term exposure to particulate matter can also increase the risk of lung cancer and respiratory issues, he said.

According to Thurston, there are various types of particles that fall under the category of particulate matter, also known as PM2.5. “PM2.5 only accounts for the size of particles and they are not all the same,” he said. “Particles from diesel and traffic were the ones affecting the health of people.” 

Particulate matter pollution increases in areas with high vehicular traffic. Midtown includes large transit destinations such as Grand Central Station, Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station, along with major streets and avenues often filled with cars and trucks. Highways and expressways also tend to have higher concentrations of particulate matter, said Thurston. 

And too much exposure to this air can have a negative impact.

Trevor Summerfield is the American Lung Association’s director of advocacy for New York State. “Even if it’s not a high percentage of particulate pollution, there is still particle pollution in the air. Even if it’s one day out of the year, you are putting people at risk.”

Some Midtown neighborhoods have more pollution than others. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Community Air Survey tracks air quality at the neighborhood level. Although the annual average of particulate matter contamination in Chelsea and Clinton neighborhoods have steadily decreased over time, the concentration is worse than the New York City average.

But there are ways to mitigate the pollution, said Thurston. Depending on where some parks are located, they can dilute pollution from cars and other diesel vehicles, he said. 

Amadou Thiam, is the assistant director of horticulture at Bryant Park. Originally from Senegal, Thiam has lived in New York City since 1990. He described New York’s air as “a little bit dense,”  but enjoys the “openness” of the park and can breathe better in it, he said.

Summerfield said he knows more improvements to particulate matter contamination are necessary but he’s hopeful changes are being made, adding that the city’s latest push for congestion pricing will have a positive effect on the health of New Yorkers.

“It incentivizes people to take other modes of transportation and get more cars off the road,” he said.