Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

I EPA's 9/11 cleanup needs a fresh look
By Juan Gonzalez, NY Daily News Columnist, October 29, 2002

More than a year later, the debate continues over the long-term dangers of toxic chemicals released after the World Trade Center attacks. Last week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced that only three of 255 homes tested so far in lower Manhattan have shown dangerous levels of asbestos contamination.

Those results are from a new EPA program launched during the summer to either test, or clean and test, any apartment below Canal St. at the request of people who live in the area. EPA officials estimate that up to 20,000 apartments may eventually be tested or cleaned, and they warn it is too early to draw conclusions from so small a sample. Agency brass, however, were clearly pleased about the early results.

But on the very day the EPA released the positive news, an independent panel of environmental scientists raised serious questions about the standards the agency is using for its indoor cleanup program. The panel, hired by the EPA as part of a federally mandated peer review process, urged that the agency's cleanup plan be altered to: Expand testing to include a wider array of toxic contaminants, not just the handful, like asbestos or lead, that the EPA is monitoring. Lower the EPA's proposed danger benchmarks to take into account more vulnerable populations, such as children. Test and set safety standards for both residential and commercial buildings in lower Manhattan.

Just apartments cleaned
Until now, the EPA has agreed to test or clean only apartments. The federal government has left to private landlords all responsibility for cleanup of office buildings or common areas of apartment buildings. But during two days of public hearings last week, the private panel of scientists - assembled by a nonprofit group called Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment - sharply criticized the EPA's approach.

Several panel members said they were surprised that the EPA began its cleanup program even before the panel had finished its review process. "We felt EPA should be more inclusive of chemicals rather than exclusive," said Michael Dourson, director oftoxicology for the private group and chairman of thepanel. The number of chemicals tested, he said, should possibly rise to 17 from six. Dourson will write the panel's final report.

One contaminant the panel believes the EPA should test for is beryllium, a rare metal that can cause severe lung damage when inhaled. At least one independent test of World Trade Center dust found significant amounts of beryllium, Dourson said.

Federal safety standards for air and dust do not exist for many of the hundreds of contaminants detected at Ground Zero. As a result, in the days after Sept. 11, EPA officials created their own safety benchmarks for short-term and long-term exposure to many toxins.

The review by the toxicology panel is the first independent assessment of these ad hoc benchmarks. "I'm very concerned about whether the health of children was properly considered in these risk assumptions," said panel member Dr. Lynn Goldman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, during the hearings. "The panel recognized, and EPA did as well, that forthe residential places there is a need to make sure adequate child exposure [is] taken into account," Dourson said.

Setting different standards
He emphasized that the EPA also needs to develop separate criteria for commercial buildings where children are unlikely to be present. Under intense questioning from the panel, EPA representative Mark Maddaloni repeatedly said his agency welcomed the criticism and would amend its standards to address the concerns.

Many people who live in lower Manhattan have been unhappy with the EPA's handling of Ground Zero environmental issues. Now that independent scientists hired by the EPA have raised questions similar to theirs, maybe the federal government will finally do the thorough cleanup of all lower Manhattan buildings that local people and office workers have been asking for.


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