By Robin L. Flanigan

More than 90 percent of housing in Elmira was built before 1950, and some of these aging dwellings present a high risk of exposure to lead, mold and other environmental toxins linked to asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

That’s according to a new study of health and housing in low-income neighborhoods in Elmira’s 14901 ZIP code.

Prepared by the health research organization Common Ground Health, the Rapid Health Impact Assessment found that the highest number of emergency-room visits for respiratory illnesses occurred in neighborhoods with profound levels of poverty.

The study supports the work of the Central Southern Tier Health Alliance and includes a series of recommendations, several of which are already moving forward.

“Data always helps, and more data always helps more,” says Peter Buzzetti, public health director for the Chemung County Health Department, who served on the HIA steering committee.

The report revealed:

  • In ZIP code 14901, where median household income is $29,022 and 36% of resident live below the poverty line, residents experience much higher rates of emergency department visits for respiratory diseases, including asthma and COPD, than their neighbors in the rest of Elmira and Chemung County.
  • Rates of asthma-related ED visits alone from 2012-2016 for ZIP code 14901 were nearly double that of the Southern Tier. This area recorded 3,867 ED visits per 100,000 residents over the five-year period, compared with 1,796 per 100,000 residents for the nine-county Finger Lakes region as a whole.

While smoking is the main risk factor for COPD, studies also indicate that as many as 25% of people with COPD have never smoked but have developed the disease through long-term exposure to poor air quality and other lung irritants such as chemical fumes or dusts.

The study noted:

  • Rates of premature deaths due to COPD among those 45 and over in 2016 in Elmira’s census tract 7 are more than double that of Chemung County and the Southern Tier.
  • Meanwhile, elevated blood lead level rates in children under the age of 3—the ages reported on by the New York State Health Commerce System—are more than double the New York state average (excluding New York City) of 3.8 percent and ranked Chemung as having the third-highest rate of any county in the state in 2014.

Health Impact Assessments are a relatively new planning tool, informed by national best practices that aim to impact decisions before they’re made—presenting the best qualitative and quantitative evidence available to stakeholders from a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives.

The HIA process, which involved community input, a cross-sector steering committee, and extensive data gathering and research, was an outgrowth of the work of the Central Southern Tier Health Alliance, which brings together top executives from health care, public health, business, government and higher education.

The report recommends that more organizations partner together to increase quality of life for residents, improve housing conditions and the availability of stable and affordable housing, and address health disparities.

“We can’t make changes alone,” Buzzetti said. “This report supports the idea that we can make those changes with more people at the table.”

To improve health outcomes linked to poor housing, the HIA includes a series of recommendations. Recommendations already moving forward include the Chemung County Department of Health’s partnership with the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) to include lead screening and education in neighborhood hubs.

The organizations are also applying for a grant to allow students at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine to help with additional health screenings. The development of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in downtown Elmira will “add agility to our ability to meet the needs of families,” says ESPRI co-chair Don Keddell.

Among the HIA’s other recommendations:

  • Increase access to quality and affordable housing. A multidisciplinary approach would expand existing public-private partnerships with Chemung County, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, New York State Office of Homes and Community Renewal, and federal partners like HUD. The Chemung County Lead Coalition is submitting an application for a HUD lead abatement grant in late 2019 to help offset the cost of expensive lead-abatement efforts.
  • Explore the feasibility of new housing policies. Such regulations could help the City of Elmira proactively identify environmental health hazards based on home inspections and code enforcement violations, and require landlords to address code violations before a property is certified as a rental. Based on housing grades reported by ESPRI, a majority of units were given a C- or D-.
  • Establish a Healthy Homes program and apply for the New York State Healthy Neighborhoods Program. The program assesses houses for environmental health and safety issues. An outreach worker provides written and verbal education, referrals and products to help resident correct or reduce hazards.

“For me it’s sort of a spider web,” says Keddell, “how people are coming together and beginning to think about ways to reinforce what one another is doing.”

Adds Buzzetti: “We’re going to continue our conversations and see where they go.”