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Putting health on the map - Project seeks local medical histories

Residents living in Greenpoint and East Williamsburg have been inundated with news about the oil spill and the environmental effects of the accumulation of pollutants in the areas surrounding Newtown Creek for much of the past decade, but the effect of the pollution on individuals health remains unknown.

To get a better picture of the relationship between the environment and the health of residents living in the surrounding area, Rachael Weiss, a Masters of Public Health candidate at Hunter College, in conjunction with the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA), will be conducting a series of interviews with North Brooklyn residents over the coming year.

“I’ve been going to all these meetings and what I got from the community was that many people were angry and did not have an outlet to stand up and tell their stories,” Weiss said. “As a public health student, I wanted to document these stories before they were lost and learn what happened over the past 50 years.”

On Oct. 18 at 3 p.m., Weiss, Michael Heimbinder, the director of Habitat Maps, and members of the NCA will hold an information session for residents interested in participating in the project, officially known as the Newtown Creek Community Health and Harm Narratives Project. Weiss hopes to train 10 people on how to use recording equipment to conduct interviews of their neighbors and friends in Greenpoint, Maspeth and East Williamsburg. The community-based research project is part-oral history, part-social science, and at the end of one year, Weiss wants to collect the stories of 50 to 60 participants. So far, she has been relying on word of mouth, attending community meetings, and contacting key community leaders throughout Greenpoint to increase the potential pool of interview subjects.

“We’re looking for what people think the impact has been from living in a toxic environment and see if any of their health problems were impacted by the environment,” Weiss said. “Do they smell pollution and odors at certain times, see it in certain places? I have a feeling we will get a lot of information about what is going on and hopefully we can identify some common trends.”

Weiss is careful to assert that her project does not aim to prove causation between the polluted areas and the health problems of residents living nearby. A number of variables in addition to pollution can affect the presence of rare cancers, birth defects and neurological disorders that have been reported over time, and this remains the province of more scientific studies. Community groups have been lobbying the Department of Health to perform a cancer cluster study in Greenpoint for several areas, but this remains a separate project from Weiss’ research.

Weiss’ aim is to demonstrate the scope of health-related problems in an area, map out their relation to polluted sites, and examine how people think their health is related to where they live. She has enlisted the help of Heimbinder to upload recorded oral interviews to the Web site so that when a user clicks on an area of the map, a cluster of participant’s stories can be played through an audio clip.

For now, the challenge remains training interviewers and collecting a large enough pool of interview subjects, especially seniors who do not have email access, to accurately represent people from different communities who live around Newtown Creek.

“I talk to people who don’t live in Greenpoint and they have no idea about the oil spill and that it happened right across from them in the East River,” Weiss said. “Hopefully it will add a personal component to an environmental injustice.”

The first public information session for the Newtown Creek Community Health and Harm Narratives Project will occur on Oct. 18 at 3 p.m. in the Greenpoint Library (107 Norman Ave.). For more information, visit

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