Neighbors Ask: Are Hospital’s Diesel Generators Causing Health Risks?

Wyckoff Hospital in Bushwick, Brooklyn is one of the busiest in the city for treating asthma and respiratory ailments, some of which the hospital itself might be causing.

Last spring, the hospital’s internal air conditioning system failed. To remedy this problem, outdoor generators the size of semi-trucks were placed on the hospital’s side of Stockholm Street. On the other side are medical offices and personal residences.

Due to resident complaints, the majority of generators were relocated to the hospital’s rear parking lot. But residents still weren’t content with the arrangement. The hospital electing to move the generators simply made them another street’s problem.

“This is like ‘The Nightmare on Elm Street.’ It’s just ridiculous,” protested Lily Gonzalez, a resident living on Stockholm Street. “I suffer from insomnia and get migraines everyday.”

The generators burn approximately 65 gallons of diesel an hour. A black film is forming on the hospital’s posterior wall where they’ve been placed. Residents are worried that this black film will somehow replicate itself in their lungs.

Black film behind generator on St. Nicholas Avenue side of Wyckoff Heights Medical Center

“I felt like there was a point in the summertime when I wasn’t breathing well, and I’m a pretty active person. I bike about 20 miles a day,” said resident Michael Kelly. “The generators were the most apparent environmental force in my life that could have caused some respiratory issue.”

When similar generators were employed by the organizers of Fashion Week in February to power the weeklong event, people were infuriated, especially since Fashion Week was supposed to be going green. Residents complained about headaches and their children being unable to sleep. Residents of Stockholm Street and St. Nicholas Avenue have been suffering from the same issues but for much longer.

New York City is already notorious for failing to meet federal clean air standards due to emissions from heavy traffic and other pollution sources, according to a 2005 Clean Air Task Force report. Burning diesel not only worsens the air but people’s health, too. Associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Dr. Matthew Perzanowski said that there’s good evidence particulate matter from diesel fuel can cause respiratory problems. He said that although the effect of long-term exposure to diesel fuel has not yet been thoroughly studied, “It’s obviously detrimental to people’s health.”

Wyckoff Hospital spent $1.7 million in renovations to its emergency room last fall. These renovations included doubling the number of intake rooms for asthma patients. Many residents find it ironic that a hospital so dedicated to helping its asthma patients remains undaunted by the prospect of its generators causing people adverse health effects.

Generator on Stockholm Street

The hospital is aware of the effect its generators could have on people already suffering from respiratory issues. On its official Web page dedicated to asthma, air pollutants are regarded as being triggers of attacks.

In response to residents’ voiced grievances, hospital officials have added filters and sound dampening devices to the generators. However, the generators can still be heard even a block away.

“It’s extremely loud. It’s brutal,” complained resident Ryan Wheeler. “When I moved in this summer, I couldn’t have a conversation on the phone. I had to walk to the other side of the street.”

Residents want answers. But hospital personnel won’t give any. It seems as though all of them have been trained to either say they are unbothered by the generators’ incessant whirring or that they can’t comment.

When asked about the issue’s specifics, the hospital’s Director of Public Relations Jannitza Luna-Dilan refused to comment. Instead, she provided a press release, what seemed like a standard practice for the hospital. The press release stated that the hospital was in the process of acquiring the appropriate permits required to begin construction of the new air conditioning system, which it claimed should “be up and running by the end of September 2011.”

In the press release, the new air conditioning system was estimated to cost $7 million. The hospital asked the community to be patient saying its financial situation over the past two years is what caused the situation to be prolonged for so long. It claimed that, “we are making it a priority to allocate funds for the updating of the air conditioning system.”

When Luna-Dilan was asked if the new air conditioning system would actually be installed by the end of September as promised, she said she didn’t know. She claimed that the engineering department would have more information. After four unanswered calls and two voicemails to the engineering department, it became evident that the hospital was simply not going to provide an answer.

Concerned neighbors say hospital officials have been dodging numerous requests for information and don’t seem to be making any progress on removing the generators.

Kelly has been working tirelessly to have the generators removed since their debut, but to no avail. He had called the 311 helpline to assist him with this issue, too. The 311 operator said she filed a complaint on Kelly’s behalf to the Department of Environmental Protection, which was supposed to call him within 10 days to arrange a meeting to discuss the issue. However, he said he never received a call.

“The hospital should be held accountable,” said Kelly. “They’ve put a 24-foot tractor in front of people’s lives.”

Kelly feels the hospital is hiding behind a façade of health.  “It should be known what approach this institution of wellness and health is taking. They make you feel like you’re against the hospital saving lives if you’re against the generators,” he said.

A neighborhood resident posted a video sound recording on YouTube of a community board meeting the hospital held on May 25 to address the air conditioning issue. People talked more about how great the Wyckoff Hospital has been in helping patients than about the generators. But hospital CEO Rajiv Garg did assure the community that the generators would be out by September.

Residents are reluctant to believe claims made by hospital officials, since they’ve been making making promises they can’t keep. Discontented residents are ready to take drastic steps to once again live in a peaceful neighborhood.

(Published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Written for Reporting and Writing class Sept. 21, 2011)

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