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Environmental Aftermath

by Michael Burger, Feb 28, 2003
 

Many of the people closest to the World Trade Center relief efforts are not satisfied with how government agencies are handling the cleanup. There appear to be a lot of gaps. In particular, residents, workers and advocates have expressed concern about the lack of coordination, and the lack of information, on environmental health issues at Ground Zero and the neighborhoods around it.

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"People feel like they are not getting a clear picture from the authorities," says Foster Maer, a downtown resident and member of the Warren-Murray Street Task Force. "To the extent that information is being released people are not getting it. And there is probably a lot of information not even being released."

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The federal, state and city governments have hundreds of people monitoring air quality in and around the site. The United States Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring for asbestos and particulate matter in the air, and for asbestos in the dust. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is monitoring for carbon and fine particulate matter in the air. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is in on the action as well.

Yet, in the last two weeks it has become increasingly apparent that the government scientists are not looking for precisely the right thing, or, if they are, they are not releasing that information to the public.

Dr. Paul Lioy of the University of Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey announced last week that he had found levels of lead in dust samples from around the World Trade Center disaster area that may pose a threat to the public health. At a public meeting at New York University, Dr. Lioy characterized the levels as "moderate", and said that the lead needs to be removed from homes and buildings, especially where children are likely to come across it. He advised homeowners to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid, and that renters approach their building managers.

At the same meeting, Dr. Jacqueline Moline of Mt. Sinai Medical Center reported that fiberglass is one of the main constituents in air and dust samples at Ground Zero. Fiberglass is a suspected carcinogen. It also causes significant irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. In a telephone interview, Carrie Loewenherz, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee on Occupational Health, explained that NYCOSH has found fiberglass to comprise five to 95 percent of the weight of outdoor samples taken in the area, and 30 to 50 percent of indoor samples taken from a Church Street location across from the World Trade Center. Loewenherz pointed out that there are no state or federal standards for levels of fiberglass or for fiberglass cleanup. "There are guidelines [for cleanup] by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, but OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulates it as if it were regular, household dust."

And, in a third development, an independent study by Virginia-based toxicology firm HP Environmental has shown higher levels of asbestos in the fallout dust than previously measured. The study, which used an EPA-approved test, found that the force of the explosions shattered the asbestos into fibers so small that they slipped under the agency's radar. Scientists and public health experts are unsure about the health risk. Some argue that the smaller fibers do not possess the pine-cone shape of the larger fibers, and therefore are unlikely to scrape the lungs in the same way and lead to the same results. Others argue that the smaller fibers will more easily lodge deep in the lungs. EPA has not released any information on the smaller asbestos or HP Environmental's study.

Joel Kupferman of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project is pressing the EPA to release information on these and other substances, including dioxins, PCBs and other toxins which may be released from burning wood, paper, plastics, vinyl-coated wiring and cable, urethane foam upholstery, vinyl floor tile, synthetic fiber carpets, or oils from old fluorescent light ballasts; and carbon monoxide and sulfur oxides, which may be released with the smoke and gases. In addition, a report from the project points out that while some scientists believe that the freon from the Trade Center's air conditioning system escaped during the initial explosions, others say that pockets of freon remain and may have converted to phosgene, also known as nerve gas.

Part of the problem in organizing an effective cleanup of the area is that the collapse of the Twin Towers seems to have created something like a new form of particulate matter, a minute dust smaller than anything regulated by EPA. There are no standards for this material, which like other fine dust and soot dries out the lungs and makes them susceptible to opportunistic organisms.

CLEANING UP

Many of the workers at Ground Zero, perhaps tricked by not seeing the fine particles in the air, do not wear gas masks or other respiratory protection. Dr. Moline of Mt. Sinai reported that there have been reports of new onset asthma and reactive airways, an asthma-like condition that arises from sudden exposures to toxic materials. In addition, she said, there have been many reports of increased irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. But nobody is enforcing federal cleanup laws on the site, which, under other circumstances, may have been listed as a federal Superfund site and subject to rigorous hazardous waste cleanup regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not performed tests whose results could compel employers to make workers use respiratory protection. Indeed, OSHA has claimed status as an advisory agency, rather than an enforcement agency. Unfortunately, the regional administrator from OSHA was unavailable to comment on the legal basis for the administration's decision.

As the science trickles in and new threats come to light, the city is left to consider what cleanup standards should be used in apartments and offices, and who should pay for it. Anecdotal evidence paints a chaotic picture of downtown: insurers tell tenants they will not cover cleanup unless levels exceed EPA levels; tenants do not trust building managers; building managers clean up the apartment but leave the balcony untouched; people have been seen sweeping dust from the roof into the air.

"At this point, the non-economic problem, and there are a host of economic problems, but the non-economic problem is that the burden of the cleanup and the assurance that it is done properly has been dumped on the private sector," says Alan Gerson, the Democratic candidate for City Council in District 1. "What we have is a process of self-certification, which is a problem in normal times. Now it is just inappropriate."

Ordinarily, asbestos cleanup is a quarantined procedure which employs plastic sheets to contain the affected area and negative air pressure to make sure nothing escapes. Workers have full-face respirators, suits that cover their whole bodies, and gloves. After the cleanup, workers take their clothes off and put them into labeled bags that are taken straight to a landfill. "The whole point is to make sure asbestos does not get disturbed and spread more widely, and to make sure the workers do not breathe it in," says Lowell Peterson, legal counsel to Local 78, the asbestos, lead and hazardous waste abatement union. "A lot of the cleanups are being done without any of those protections."

Yet, air samples taken by EPA in rooms with dust on the floors show levels above EPA's clearance standard for asbestos. Of 143 bulk samples in Lower Manhattan, 109 have had detectable asbestos, and 37 of those 109 are above EPA?s standard for defining asbestos-containing material. Of course, the other 72 also had asbestos, and even borderline levels of asbestos in dust present significant threats to health. During cleanup the asbestos is liable to get kicked up into the air and linger for days. The EPA's standard levels for asbestos were meant to address tiles and other seemingly stable materials, not dust. In the present situation, asbestos fibers are so tiny that the only way they will remain on the floor of an apartment or office is if no doors or windows are open, and no one enters the room. Whoever is cleaning up any of these rooms will be exposed to high levels.

"What we need is a coordinated, concerted cleanup effort for lower Manhattan under the auspices of a city agency or authority," says Gerson. "We need block-by-block, building-by-building certification. Like what the city is doing with the crime effort, and what it is doing with removal from Ground Zero. It is not that the city should clean every office, but the city should see to it that every apartment and rooftop is clean."

Other Resources

Michael Burger writes Gotham Gazette's Environmental Topic Page.

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